May 5, 2009—As far as robot dexterity goes, RAPHaEL may just have the upper hand.
The air-powered machine, created by undergraduate students at Virginia Tech's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory, can gently grasp a raw egg as successfully as the machine holds a heavy can of food—and is flexible enough for sign language.
RAPHaEL (Robotic Air-Powered Hand with Elastic Ligaments) is connected to a compressed air tank. An operator controls the air pressure to manipulate the fingers.
For instance, low air pressure lightens the grip, and higher air pressure makes it firmer.
But what makes RAPHaEL unique is the students' decision not to control each finger joint individually but instead use one actuator, or motion activator, to move all of a finger's joints.
"It's a very interesting and novel [method] of actuating fingers in a very simple, elegant, and low-cost way," said faculty adviser and lab director Dennis Hong.
The lightweight mechanism—which won first place in the 2008-09 Compressed Air and Gas Institute's Innovation Awards Contest—may someday lend a hand to sign language programs as well as prosthetics design and other areas of scientific research, Hong added.