Festo is continually looking at ways to enhance human and machine interaction in industrial environments, based on soft robotics. Its latest operating exoskeleton concept, ExoHand, combines human intelligence with the capabilities of a robot. The ExoHand represents a possible technical solution to the challenges that production and working environments – real as well as virtual – will be faced with in the future and extends the human scope of action in production environments.
Individually adapted to the human hand and worn like a glove, the ExoHand’s fingers can actively move, and their strength can be amplified. This manual orthosis not only fits over the human hand, but can also be worn over an artificial hand made of silicone, thus creating a link between robotics and orthotics in a completely new way. This structure supports the human hand externally and stimulates the physiological degrees of freedom of the hand, thus providing various possibilities for gripping and touching.
Manufactured from polyamide, the exoskeleton is moved by eight pneumatic actuators – DFK-10 cylinders – that are attached to the structure and allow the wearer to open and close the fingers of the orthosis with utmost precision. Sensors record the forces, angle and distances. Servo-pneumatic open and closed loop control algorithms allow precise movement of the individual finger joints. The ExoHand also consists of proportional valves, linear potentiometers that act as displacement sensors, and pressure sensors. A CoDeSys-compliant system lends control.
The pneumatic components allow highly flexible and ergonomic control of the individual finger joints. High forces can thus be transmitted precisely in a small space and with a low weight, without the system becoming rigid and restrictive. The index finger can be pivoted to either side and the thumb can rotate towards the palm, just like a human hand.
The ExoHand can be used to assist in assembly, especially in repetitive tasks that can easily lead to fatigue and to compensate for an ageing workforce in most industrialised countries. In addition, complex tasks in dangerous or hazardous environments can be performed from a safe distance. There is also substantial potential for use of the ExoHand in the service robot market, due to the rapid growth that is envisaged.
From a medical perspective, the ExoHand can be invaluable in rehabilitation therapy, especially for stroke patients. Used in conjunction with a brain-computer-interface (BCI) the ExoHand allows a closed loop to be established, which can help regenerate the damaged connection from the brain to the hand. Festo is working together with the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience at the University Hospital Tübingen on this prospect.
The components used in the ExoHand are already produced by Festo in large quantities, which will enable its manufacture at relatively low cost.
The ExoHand was nominated for a coveted international 2012 Hermes Award, for outstanding technical innovations.