Powering an ‘arm’ with air could be mighty handy: Walking feeds pressure to pneumatic robots that could help those with disabilities

Everybody could use a third arm sometimes, but for some it would be particularly helpful.

Mechanical engineers at Rice University’s George R. Brown School of Engineering have built a handy extra limb able to grasp objects and go, powered only by compressed air. It’s one of several ideas they’ve implemented with a textile-based energy harvesting system.

The proof-of-principle robotic devices designed and built by Daniel Preston, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, lead authors Rachel Shveda and Anoop Rajappan and their team are geared toward those living with disabilities and are tough enough for everyday use, they said.

How the project described in Science Advances utilizes air differs from the Preston lab’s now-famous manipulation of dead spiders as grabbers. These pneumatic devices derive their power from walking.

The prototype “arm” is a piece of fabric that hugs the body when not in use, but extends outward when activated and incorporates an elastomer lining on the surface to maintain its grip on slippery objects. For demonstrations, Rice alumna Shveda, now an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, would operate the arm with a switch. Preston said future versions could have sensors that anticipate the wearer’s intent and complete the movement.

In addition to the curling arm that can grip a cup or other small objects while one’s hands are full, the Rice lab built a shirt with a bellows-like actuator attached at the armpit that expands, enabling the wearer to pick up a 10-pound object. Testing the apparel on a mannequin showed it could do so without an assist from human muscles.

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