Prosthetic Hand Is Low-Tech But Ingeniously Effective

The Versaball could be used to perform basic manual labor tasks. Photo credit: Empire Robotics.

A new concept for a prosthetic hand isn't perfect but it just might be good enough for many common tasks.

Empire Robotics' Versaball Gripper behaves like a balloon that's partially filled with sand. It's squishy and malleable, so when you place it over an object, it forms a mold around it. Then when you add air, it hardens its shape so you can pick up and move the object.

It's not elegant, but it gets the job done, said John Amend, Empire Robotics' chief technology officer and a mechanical engineer on the device's design team. It's fine for lending a helping hand during manual labor tasks such as plumbing, mechanics or assembly line work, he said.

"These are jobs where you don't really care what your hand looks like but it's nothing you'd want to wear to dinner," Amend said.

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Amend explained that the Versaball would be inferior compared to a more realistic "bionic" prosthetic that can mimic the detailed, intricate movements of a real human hand. But because more sophisticated prosthetics require extensive software and hardware, they can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A jamming manipulator like the Versaball could be popped on and off a sleeve and perform basic movements without any fancy programming or intricate wiring. That could potentially reduce the cost to a few thousand dollars, Amend said.

A commercial version of the Versaball is now being sold for use on robotic manufacturing production lines. But Amend said that the company is planning to develop the prosthetic hand as soon as possible. Once funding in place, the hand could be available in less a year.

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