Over the years, there have been many breakthroughs that have given robotic hands increased dexterity and manipulation, but none have been capable of playing video games, much less beating them. A team of engineers from the University of Maryland’s Bioinspired Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory (BAM) managed to accomplish both feats using a soft robotic hand that beat a single level of Super Mario Bros. Soft robotics are typically powered by air or water, rather than motors or actuators that require an electrical current. These robots are generally safe to be around and are often employed in the medical and agricultural fields, where delicate flexibility is an asset.
The drawback to using air or water for actuation is that it is often difficult to control or limit functionality. To that end, the engineers developed a soft robotic hand that is entirely 3D-printed and uses
integrated fluidic circuits for actuation. What’s more, the process of building the appendage is done in a single step. “Previously, each finger of a soft robotic hand would typically need its own control line, which can limit portability and usefulness,” states Joshua Hubbard, who performed the research during his time as an undergraduate researcher at BAM. “But by 3D printing the soft robotic hand with our integrated ‘fluidic transistors,’ it can play Nintendo based on just one pressure input.”
What makes this robotic hand different from the others is its integrated fluidic circuit, which responds to a single control pressure rather than several, and lets the engineers use varying pressure levels to control the hand. For example, using a low pressure will cause a robotic finger to move, while a higher pressure enables them to control other fingers. To demonstrate the hand’s capabilities, the engineers created a program that allowed it to press the correct button combinations to navigate successfully through the first level of Super Mario Bros.
The team is currently looking at using the soft robotic hand for biomedical applications, including rehabilitation devices, surgical tools, and custom prosthetics.