Cornell Researchers use 3D Printing to Create Soft Robotic Hand that 'feels' like a Human

Friday, December 16, 2016


Cornell researchers have used a 3D printer and four-step soft lithography to create a soft robotic hand that can feel surfaces just like a human. Stretchable optical waveguides act as curvature, elongation, and force sensors in the 3D printed hand.

Touching, feeling, and grasping are things we start doing from the day we are born. That makes them easy to think about in a loose sense, but also difficult to truly put our finger on. How do we experience the sensation of touch? How could we replicate that sensation in a nonhuman entity? Is touch an internal or external sensation? A research team at Cornell University, led by assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Robert Shepherd, is concerned with these very questions, and has used 3D printing to try and answer them.

While most robots achieve grasping and tactile sensing through motors, Shepherd and co have devised a soft robotic hand, built using 3D printed molds, which uses the external tips of its fingers to gather information while actually “feeling” the sensation internally—much like humans do. Doctoral student Huichan Zhao is lead author of the paper, “Optoelectronically Innervated Soft Prosthetic Hand via Stretchable Optical Waveguides,” which is featured in the debut edition of Science Robotics.

“Most robots today have sensors on the outside of the body that detect things from the surface,” Zhao said. “Our sensors are integrated within the body, so they can actually detect forces being transmitted through the thickness of the robot, a lot like we and all organisms do when we feel pain, for example.”

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