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Portrait: © Studio Brega


Will robots ever have the same dexterity as humans? Professor Antonio Bicchi is working on the next-generation of artificial hands that can be programmed to adapt to different tasks and environments. The  promising results of his research could have a strong impact on engineering robotics as well as on rehabilitation technologies.

The human hand is an extremely complex system abundant in receptors, muscles and articular joints. For this reason, despite significant advances in humanoid robotics in recent years, current artificial hands either have limited functionality or lack adequate practicality and robustness. Aiming at overcoming these constraints, Prof. Bicchi’s team has developed an artificial hand, called SoftHand, unique in its ability to distinguish between heavy and delicate objects. To achieve this result, researchers have worked on making a better hand by making it simpler. Simple is not easy, however, and the new development could only be based on the understanding of the sensorimotor system of human hand through a new approach based on the theory of soft synergies. First conceived to enable humanoid robots to do fine manipulation, SoftHand is currently being adapted to be used as a prosthesis enabling a human being to grasp and manipulate a wide variety of objects. The artificial hand is connected to the forearm via electrodes which register the electronic activity of the muscle. Then the signal is analysed by an electronic interface that communicates with the motor. When muscles contract, the motor is activated and the hand closes to pick up objects. This mechanism allows controlling not only the movement but also the force, making the artificial hand effective for both delicate and forceful manipulation tasks. The outcome of this project may provide the basis for further refinement of a high-performance prosthetic hand with superior functional capabilities and that could be produced at a comparatively low cost.

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