Assistive robotic gloves hold great promise to restore lost hand functionality after a stroke, disease, or accident. They can also help with rehabilitation.
What is a Robotic Glove?
Buckle up — the world of robotic gloves is a bit muddled.
First, we’d prefer the term “bionic gloves” but this has been coopted by a company of the same name that makes specialized gloves for many different sports and activities. However, these are not powered gloves. Instead, they enhance grip strength through a combination of compression, support, and pressure distribution. Here is an excellent description of this approach, even though this video is nearly a decade old:
Next, there are numerous devices designed solely to assist with rehabilitation, often following a stroke or other neurological event. These devices do not assist the user with daily activities. Instead, they use a combination of technologies to encourage patients to perform their daily rehabilitation exercises. Here is one example that uses a primarily physical model:
Here is another device that uses primarily virtual training:
There are also hand components of military or industrial exoskeletons, as well as gloves with haptic feedback that can be used to control robotic arms or other scientific devices.
To be clear, we don’t cover any of these types of gloves, though the rehabilitation devices target the same audience that we do and can be incredibly useful.
We cover only assistive devices, though they may also have rehabilitative benefits.
For example, here is one assistive robotic hand — the NeoMano — that is already on the market:
This is a fairly simple open/close device but you can see how valuable it might be to someone with severe hand dysfunction. And at $2,000 US per device, it is quite a bit more affordable than most bionic mobility devices.
This next example — the NUADA glove — is more advanced and will start selling in December 2021 for roughly $4,000 US depending on exchange rates (its official price is 3,500 Euros):
Note that this device requires a certain amount of hand movement as a control mechanism.
Finally, this next example — the Tenoexo — is still just a prototype. It is more of a hand exoskeleton and is controlled via myoelectric signals generated by muscles in the forearm. More specifically, when the user tries to use his natural hand, the muscles in the forearm move as they would with a healthy hand. This generates myoelectric (i.e. muscular electrical) signals that are picked up by a sensor band wrapped around the forearm. These signals are translated into commands for the exoskeleton device, which then uses electrical power to perform the desired actions. This is especially useful for someone who has very little movement in their natural hand.
Basic Design Elements of a Robotic Glove
Before we started researching robotic gloves, we assumed that they would be simpler than bionic hands. For example, the exoskeleton device in the preceding video uses a sensor & control system that is similar to that of many bionic hands, but the natural hand structure is still intact and still provides sensory feedback and some degree of natural control.
However, its designers must also deal with the fact that the natural hand is still present, which not only changes the motion dynamics but also introduces the risk of injury.
So, don’t make the same mistake that we made and assume that these devices are in any way simple. As a bit of a wake-up call, consider this chart identifying the basic technologies that make up robotic gloves, courtesy of a study titled, A Review of Active Hand Exoskeletons for Rehabilitation and Assistance:
And here are the additional details for just one main component — Actuation:
Some of these components may be complimentary, such as the different types of potential sensory feedback in the first chart, while others may be competing alternatives, such as the Pneumatic vs Hydraulic options.
Why are we telling you all this? Because many of these potential components are design choices that can significantly impact the value of a robotic glove to you, so you will need to understand them to make a wise purchase decision.
We plan to help you with this task by writing articles on the underlying technologies for robotic gloves, just as we’ve done for bionic arms & hands and bionic legs & feet. But we wanted you to know that you’re going to have to put in considerable effort to master this material.
The Current Commercial Robotic Glove Landscape
To our knowledge, here is a brief description of all the commercial assistive hand devices that are either already on the market or will be in the foreseeable future:
|Neomano||A soft robotic glove that can actively help the user open and close their index and middle fingers at the press of a button. Enables people with hand paralysis to perform daily activities like holding a drink, brushing their teeth, or turning a doorknob to open a door. Can hold up to 2 kilograms.||$2,000 US||Currently for sale|
|NUADA||A soft robotic glove that uses thin, breathable, flexible, and smart textiles combined with sensors and powered tendons to help users grip objects. The powered tendons follow the movement of the natural hand and then automatically lock in to secure the grip. Can also ratchet to a tighter grip in response to an explicit user action. Is capable of holding up to 40 kilograms.||$4,000 US||December 2021|
|CarbonHand||Previously called the “SEM Glove”. A soft robotic glove similar in concept to that of the NUADA, though not as compact. It uses pressure sensors and powered tendons to proportionally augment grip. The more pressure applied naturally, the more the CarbonHand augments the grip.||$7,000 US||Currently for sale|
|Tenoexo||A myoelectric device that translates electrical muscle signals in the forearm into hand exoskeleton actions. Has the potential to assist patients with more severe hand impairments than the other devices in this list.||???||Still a prototype|
We are certain that there are more devices than this at or near commercialization around the globe. The problem is that there are so many projects in development, plus a great many purely rehabilitative devices, that it is taking a lot of time and effort to sift through them all.
This article is just the start of our work in this area. We will now begin writing articles on the individual devices listed above, their underlying technologies, and any other devices that we encounter along the way.
As we do this, we will eventually evolve this article into A Complete Guide for Robotic Gloves, as we have done for the other areas that we cover in human bionics.
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