E-mech

MIT’s pneumatic, knitted gloves

MIT’s CSAIL (Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) researchers have introduced an assistive knitted glove that grants wearers a reinforced hand grip using the sensing and feedback of pneumatic actuator technology. 

The technology, called ‘PneuAct’, is the product of a machine knitting process that is carried out autonomously. Such a design process is what makes the PneuAct unique: while the use of pneumatic actuators (i.e. air pressure-based devices that convert energy into mechanical force) is of course a long-established approach to electromechanical (e-mech) technology, particularly in robotics, the PneuAct gloves are manufactured without the demand for manual development. 

Usually, such fabric-based e-mech requires a lot of hand-crafting to ensure that the soft material is fabricated effectively. In MIT’s CSAIL technology, however, the product is manufactured by the designer using software to input the stitch and sensor design patterns, based on their understanding of how the actuator should operate in accordance with the demands of the glove wearer’s prospective hand movements.

This makes the technology highly applicable to sufferers of hand trauma, such as arthritis: the actuators work in tandem with the glove’s sensors to provide air pressure that provides the required resistance needed when a user grips objects. While this may be vital to helping hand injury sufferers to become more dexterous, as the wearable provides the necessary feedback that will help its user to gauge the level of grip required to grasp an object, there are still difficulties that arise, particularly at the software level.

As one author of the PneuAct’s academic paper explains, namely Andrew Spielberg, Postdoc in Materials Science and Mechanical Engineering at Harvard University: “Our software tool is fast, easy to use, and it accurately previews users’ designs. … But this process still requires some trial and error from humans. Can a computer reason about how textiles should be physically programmed in actuators to allow for rich, sensing-driven behaviour? That’s the next frontier.”

Although the demand for trial and error is indeed significant, the development of the PneuAct gloves nevertheless reflects an efficient approach to fabricating pneumatic actuator-based wearables, which the authors explain will even be able to further inform the design of powered exoskeletons. Such exoskeletons are electromechanical frameworks that can be worn over the torso (or even the entirety) of the human body to reinforce the wearer's muscular strength and movements, allowing an enhanced ability to carry out heavy lifting.

Image credit: MIT

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