General Motors (GM) and NASA are jointly developing a robotic glove that
automotive workers and astronauts can wear to help do their respective jobs
better while potentially reducing the risk of repetitive stress injuries.
The Human Grasp Assist device, known internally in both organizations as the
K-glove or Robo-Glove, resulted from GM and NASA’s Robonaut 2 (R2) project,
which launched the first human-like robot into space in 2011. R2 is a permanent
resident of the International Space Station.
When engineers, researchers, and scientists from GM and NASA began
collaborating on R2 in 2007, one of the design requirements was for the robot
to operate tools designed for humans, alongside astronauts in outer space and
factory workers on Earth. The team achieved an unprecedented level of hand
dexterity on R2 by using leading-edge sensors, actuators, and tendons
comparable to the nerves, muscles, and tendons in a human hand.
Research shows that continuously gripping a tool can cause fatigue in hand
muscles within a few minutes. Initial testing of the Robo-Glove indicates the
wearer can hold a grip longer and more comfortably.
“When fully developed, the Robo-Glove has the potential to reduce the amount
of force that an auto worker would need to exert when operating a tool for an
extended time or with repetitive motions,” said Dana Komin, GM’s manufacturing
engineering director, Global Automation Strategy and Execution. “In so doing,
it is expected to reduce the risk of repetitive stress injury.”
For example, an astronaut working in a pressurized suit outside the space
station or an assembly operator in a factory might need to use 15 to 20 lbs of
force to hold a tool during an operation but with the robotic glove only 5 to
10 lbs of force might need to be applied.
“The prototype glove offers my space suit team a promising opportunity to
explore new ideas, and challenges our traditional thinking of what
extravehicular activity hand dexterity could be,” said Trish Petete, division
chief, Crew and Thermal Systems Division, NASA Johnson
Inspired by the finger actuation system of R2, actuators are embedded into
the upper portion of the glove to provide grasping support to human fingers. The
pressure sensors, similar to the sensors that give R2 its sense of touch are
incorporated into the fingertips of the glove to detect when the user is grasping
a tool. When the user grasps the tool, the synthetic tendons automatically
retract, pulling the fingers into a gripping position and holding them there
until the sensor is released.
GM and NASA have submitted 46 patent applications for R2, including 21 for
R2’s hand and four for the Robo-Glove alone.
The first prototype of the glove was completed in March 2011 with a second
generation arriving three months later. The fabric for the glove was produced
by Oceaneering Space Systems, the same company that provided R2’s “skin.”
The current prototypes weigh about two pounds and include the control
electronics, actuators, and a small display for programming and diagnostics. An
off-the-shelf lithium-ion power-tool battery with a belt-clip is used to power
the system. A third-generation prototype that will use repackaged components to
reduce the size and weight of the system is nearing completion.
“We are continuously looking for ways to improve safety and productivity on
the shop floor,” Komin said. “Our goal is to bring this technology to the shop
floor in the near future.”