Robotic hands, especially those that try to mimic the dexterity and flexibility of human hands, can cost $250,000 apiece. That’s too expensive for engineers at Sandia Laboratory who are trying to build a device able to disarm improvised-explosive devices (IEDs). This led the design team to develop a more-economical robotic hand, now known as the Sandia Hand.
The hand is modular with different types of fingers that can be quickly attached or removed from the hand frame. The frame also accepts tools such as flashlights, screwdrivers, or cameras instead of fingers. And if the hand accidently rams into a wall or other object, the fingers simply fall off rather than get crushed. In fact, the remaining fingers on a Sandia hand can pick up a dislocated finger and pop it back into its socket.
The hand and fingers are covered with a tough outer skin of plastic over a gel-like layer that lets the hand more easily pick up and manipulate delicate objects. Operators control the hand using an instrumented glove, which makes the task more intuitive.
Ordinary robotic hands can cost $10,000 for each independently activated degree of freedom (dof). The Sandia Hand, which was developed with help from Darpa, can have up to 12 dof at $800 each, even in low volumes.
“At this price point, the Sandia hand has the potential to be a disruptive technology,” says Sandia senior manager Philip Heerman. “Computers, calculators, and cell phones became part of everyday life once the price became affordable. This hand has the same potential, especially because high-volume production will further reduce cost.”