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Virginia Tech's Improved Robotic Hand Captures Top Award

By Virginia Tech News

October 5, 2009

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A team of five undergraduates from the Virginia Tech College of Engineering have placed first in a competition run by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for RAPHaEL 2, a robotic hand that runs on compressed air. Rather than using a clunky motor, the hand relies on air pressure to grip objects. Varying levels of pressure can be applied depending on the item's shape and weight. The hand also uses a flexible tube actuator.

Supported by the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory, the students improved upon the original RAPHaEL by adding closed loop control mechanism to its design as well as sensors for force feedback and automatic positioning of the fingers. Students also exchanged the first hand's acrylic material with a stronger polycarbonate one. "This gives us a lot more control over the kinds of things we can do with the hand," says student Kyle Cothern. "Eventually, we might be able to tell how soft an object you're grabbing is just by touching it."

In the future, students hope to design the hand to pick up small objects in motion and to use lighter materials to make it look and feel more human. Cothern says that RAPHaEL 2 would be an ideal prosthetic hand because it is simple to use and its fingers are replaceable. Eventually, Virginia Tech researchers hope that RAPHaEL 2 will form part of the project CHARLI,  the Cognitive Humanoid Robot with Learning Intelligence.

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