Shaking hands with GM and NASA's RoboGlove

The former Young Astronaut in me jumped at General Motors’ offer to play with the RoboGlove. Who would pass up a chance to flex space-aged superhuman strength? I traveled to GM’s Warren, Michigan Technical Center, where its robotics program lives. I didn’t know that one of the famed Robonauts would be at GM to greet me along with the engineers who helped build it.

The RoboGlove is the offspring of Robonaut (known as R2, naturally) the human safe robot that’s been touring space aboard the International Space Station. It is the fruit of a NASA, GM, and Oceaneering partnership. When the Robonaut was first shown in 2010, it captured the otherworldly imagination for its traditional Daft Punk-like features, and even made a cameo in a One Direction video. In space, R2 performs dangerous tasks, and has received several upgrades to push the boundaries forward on space exploration.

While we don’t yet have cars that can fly through space, we might be on our way there. Robonaut is proof that collaborative thinking can produce wild, good things that eventually result in practical application. Several years ago, R2 was shown shaking hands with a NASA astronaut, but this grip served as more than a publicity stunt — it showed the robot’s potential for performing more earthly tasks, too. Marty Linn is the principal engineer of robotics for GM. Linn and his team began to work out of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 2006 and in a proud moment, they attended the 2011 Space Shuttle Discovery launch, to see R2 make its way into the solar system.

The recession, the GM bailout and internal budget cuts slowed down the original application of the technology in the automotive sphere. But as GM’s business has turned around, Linn and his team were able to produce several innovative applications of the technology including the wearable robot, the Roboglove. “We took the idea from the actuation of the hand, where we used tendons to actually move the finger back and forth,” Linn told me. “How could we take the same scheme and be able to use it to help humans?”

The robot can sense force in the joints and torque that goes in each one of the limbs. “You can feel the springiness of it,” says Linn. “That’s really the robot sensing your input and complying to your force.”

So what does it feel like?

Linn strapped the glove on my hand and flipped the external switches. First I sensed a stiffening in my hand, then the abrupt motion and a cold squeeze. Wearing a glove with a mind of its own is somewhat creepy. At some point I wondered if the RoboGlove would rebel against me and crush my fingers, like the machines in the 30-year old freaky Stephen King movie Maximum Overdrive.

The glove I tried on was a men’s large, and too big, therefore, I lacked the control to experience the benefits of a snug fit, which would have given me additional strength and more dexterity. Still, the glove constricted and was able to give and receive a firm handshake. I could see how tedious engineering plant tasks would be made easier.

There are about 15 to 20 gloves that have been made so far in small, medium, and large sizes. GM will not limit the use of the RoboGlove to the auto industry. It’s licensed the glove to BioServo, which will begin selling the RoboGlove next year, and will also likely be used for medical applications. Pricing has not yet been announced. GM has launched other robotic partnerships including the industrial robot arm with Japanese manufacturer Fanuc that assists with heavy labor jobs like stacking tires.

Before I left GM, I agreed to pose and smile with the Robonaut as is a rite of passage at the robotic lab. I wondered again if these seemingly harmless robots one day replace humans entirely? Not just yet, but I wouldn’t want to take one on in an arm wrestling match.

from Department of Space Colonization