New Gloves Grip Objects Automatically, Even Underwater

Picking things up may become a lot easier for people who experience problems gripping, thanks to new research inspired by octopuses and their tentacles.

The “octo-glove” is a wearable glove that senses objects nearby and automatically grips them. It uses adhesive materials, micro-sensors that detect light, and a microcontroller processing system to attach to a variety of objects in both dry and underwater environments.

“We wanted to create an underwater adhesive that could quickly attach and rapidly release. We were really naturally drawn to the octopus,” said article co-author Michael Bartlett, PhD. “We were really inspired by how the octopus is able to manipulate objects underwater, to capture prey, to avoid predators, and really to build a home. Of course, the octopus is famous for its eight arms, but it also has over 2000 suckers across those eight arms.”

Barlett and his team drew inspiration from multiple components of the octopus. To mimic the suckers on an octopus’ arms, the researchers put grippy suction devices on each of the glove’s fingertips. The circular silicone suction devices are made from the same material as bathroom caulk and adhere to objects using negative pressure, also known as suction pressure.

To determine when negative pressure and adhesion are needed, the team was inspired by how the octopus senses its environment and how it figures out what it wants to pick up. They elected to use micro-light-detecting and ranging (LiDAR) sensors that measure proximity and that scan for nearby objects.

To integrate the sensor data to control the grip, the researchers added a microcontroller that processes the data, similar to the octopus’ nervous system.

When the glove gets close enough to an object, the micro-LiDAR detects it. It activates negative pneumatic pressure in the adhesive material on the fingertips, creating suction and, therefore, grip. That grip, or adhesive stress, allows the gloves to pick up various objects, such as metal plates, acrylic boxes, and rubber tape.

Currently, the glove is programmed to sense and adhere to any object that is close to it. It then releases the object after a programmable amount of time. Bartlett, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, says there are opportunities for other release mechanisms.

“Looking forward, and with the flexibility of modern electronics, we could press a button, we could have another sensor that maybe knows when the object is out of water and then releases,” Bartlett explained. “We could release under different circumstances, for example, if the user had maybe even used language, effectively telling the adhesive to turn off.

“What’s really exciting about this…is that we have a lot of flexibility in terms of how we turn the sensors on, how we turn the sensors off, and how that user interaction can help control that,” Bartlett said.

The research team anticipates many applications for the octo-gloves. The original inspiration was the field of soft robotics, which aims to create robots that are more like organisms in nature. This type of attachment technology might allow robots to more more effectively move through their environment, picking up and moving objects, Bartlett said.

The technology might also be applied in industry and manufacturing, and there are potential medical applications as well.

The team thinks the technology could be used for patient rehabilitation and assistive devices. The gloves could allow people who have difficulty gripping objects to merely approach an object while wearing the gloves, attach to the object, and move it. Or the technology could be added to a prosthesis, which could then automatically grip objects such as forks or doorknobs.

Another medical application Bartlett mentioned was with regard to wearable devices. “I think it could be an interesting way to maybe monitor health. For example, if we could design this in such a way that someone could have a patch that has these octopus-inspired adhesives on it, they might be able to have sort of a wearable health monitor, maybe long-term glucose monitoring,” said Bartlett.

Looking forward, Bartlett and his team are working to find the right applications for the technology to be deployed.

“We’re hopeful that one day this kind of technology could be in the hands of people, no pun intended.”

Sci Adv. Published online July 13, 2022. Full text

Kaitlin Edwards is a staff medical editor based in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @kaitmedwards. For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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