Various robotic exoskeletons have been proposed for hand function assistance during activities of daily living (ADL) of stroke survivors. However, traditional exoskeletons involve the use of complex rigid systems that impede the natural movement of joints, and thus reduce the wearability and cause discomfort to the user. The objective of this paper is to design and evaluate a soft robotic glove that is able to provide hand function assistance using fabric-reinforced soft pneumatic actuators. These actuators are made of silicone rubber which has an elastic modulus similar to human tissues. Thus, they are intrinsically soft and compliant. Upon air pressurization, they are able to support finger range of motion (ROM) and generate the desired actuation of the finger joints. In this work, the soft actuators were characterized in terms of their blocked tip force, normal and frictional grip force outputs. Combining the soft actuators and flexible textile materials, a soft robotic glove was developed for grasping assistance during ADL for stroke survivors. The glove was evaluated on five healthy participants for its assisted ROM and grip strength. Pilot test was performed in two stroke survivors to evaluate the efficacy of the glove in assisting functional grasping activities. Our results demonstrated that the actuators designed in this study could generate desired force output at a low air pressure. The glove had a high kinematic transparency and did not affect the active ROM of the finger joints when it was being worn by the participants. With the assistance of the glove, the participants were able to perform grasping actions with sufficient assisted ROM and grip strength, without any voluntary effort. Additionally, pilot test on stroke survivors demonstrated that the patient’s grasping performance improved with the presence and assistance of the glove. Patient feedback questionnaires also showed high level of patient satisfaction and comfort. In conclusion, this paper has demonstrated the possibility of using soft wearable exoskeletons that are more wearable, lightweight, and suitable to be used on a daily basis for hand function assistance of stroke survivors during activities of daily living.
The ability to perform basic activities of daily living (ADL) impacts a person’s quality of life and independence (Katz, 1983; Andersen et al., 2004). However, an individual’s independence to perform ADLs is jeopardized due to hand motor impairments, which can be observed in patients with neurological disorders such as stroke. In order to improve hand motor functions in terms of strength and range of motion (ROM) (Kutner et al., 2010), stroke survivors undergo rehabilitation programs comprising repetitive practice of simulated ADL tasks (Michaelsen et al., 2006). Normally, patients undergo rehabilitation exercises in a specialized rehabilitation center under the guidance of physiotherapists or occupational therapists. However, due to increasing patient population, it is foreseen that there will be a shortage of physiotherapists to assist in the rehabilitative process. Thus, there will be comparatively less therapy time, which will eventually lead to a slower recovery process for the patients. Over the past decade, technological developments in robotics have facilitated the rehabilitative process and have shown potential to assist patients in their daily life (Maciejasz et al., 2014). One example of such a device is the hand exoskeleton, which is secured around the hand to guide and assist the movement of the encompassed joints. However, due to the complexity of the hand, designing a hand exoskeleton remains a challenging task.
Traditional hand exoskeletons involve the use of rigid linkage-based mechanisms. In this kind of mechanism, rigid components, such as linear actuators, rotary motors, racks, and pinions as well as rigid linkages are normally involved (Worsnopp et al., 2007; Rotella et al., 2009; Martinez et al., 2010). To assist hand movements that have high degrees of freedom (DOFs), traditional exoskeletons can be incorporated with a substantial number of actuators to achieve the requirement. However, this means that their application is limited due to the increasing bulkiness for higher DOFs. Therefore, these devices are normally restricted in clinical settings and not suitable for performing home therapy. Additionally, their rigidity, weight and constraint on the non-actuated DOFs of the joints pose complications. As a result, the level of comfort and safety of patients is reduced. In view of this, there is an apparent need for the development of exoskeletons that may be used in both clinical and home settings. A lightweight and wearable exoskeleton may allow patients to bring back home to continue daily therapy or to serve as an assistive device for the ADLs.
The development of wearable robotic exoskeletons serves to provide an alternative approach toward addressing this need. Instead of using rigid linkage as an interface between the hand and the actuators, wearable exoskeletons typically utilize flexible materials such as fabric (Sasaki et al., 2004; Yap et al., 2016a) and polymer (Kang et al., 2016), driven by compliant actuators such as cables (Sangwook et al., 2014; Xiloyannis et al., 2016) and soft inflatable actuators (Polygerinos et al., 2015d; Yap et al., 2016c). Therefore, they are more compliant and lightweight compared to the rigid linkage-based mechanism. Cable-driven based exoskeletons involve the use of cables that are connected to actuators in the form of electrical motors situated away from the hand (Nilsson et al., 2012; Ying and Agrawal, 2012; Sangwook et al., 2014; Varalta et al., 2014). By providing actuations on both dorsal and palmar sides of the hand, bi-directional cable-driven movements are possible (Kang et al., 2016). These cables mimic the capability of the tendons of the human hand and they are able to transmit the required pulling force to induce finger flexion and extension. However, the friction of the cable, derailment of the tendon, and inaccurate routing of the cable due to different hand dimensions can affect the efficiency of force transmission in the system.
On the other hand, examples of the soft inflatable actuators are McKibben type muscles (Feifei et al., 2006; Tadano et al., 2010), sheet-like rubber muscles (Sasaki et al., 2004; Kadowaki et al., 2011), and soft elastomeric actuators (Polygerinos et al., 2015b,c; Yap et al., 2015); amongst which, soft elastomeric actuators have drawn increasing research interest due to their high compliance (Martinez et al., 2013). This approach typically embeds pneumatic chamber networks in elastomeric constructs to achieve different desired motions with pressurized air or water (Martinez et al., 2012). Soft elastomeric actuators are highly customizable. They are able to achieve multiple DOFs and complex motions with a single input, such as fluid pressurization. The design of a wearable hand exoskeleton that utilizes soft elastomeric actuators is usually simple and does not require precise routing for actuation, compared to the cable-driven mechanism. Thus, the design reduces the possibility of misalignment and the setup time. These properties allow the development of hand exoskeletons that are more compliant and wearable, with the ability to provide safe human-robot interaction. Additionally, several studies have demonstrated that compactness and ease of use of an assistive device critically affect its user acceptance (Scherer et al., 2005, 2007). Thus, these exoskeletons provide a greater chance of user acceptance.
Table 1 summarizes the-state-of-art of soft robotic assistive glove driven by inflatable actuators. Several pioneer studies on inflatable assistive glove have been conducted by Sasaki et al. (2004); Kadowaki et al. (2011) and Polygerinos et al. (2015a,b,c). Sasaki et al. have developed a pneumatically actuated power assist glove that utilizes sheet-like curved rubber muscle for hand grasping applications. Polygerinos et al. have designed a hydraulically actuated grip glove that utilizes fiber-reinforced elastomeric actuators that can be mechanically programmed to generate complex motion paths similar to the kinematics of the human finger and thumb. Fiber reinforcement has been proved to be an effective method to constrain the undesired radial expansion of the actuators that does not contribute to effective motion during pressurization. However, this method limits the bending capability of the actuators (Figure S1); as a result, higher pressure is needed to achieve desired bending.
Table 1. Hand assistive exoskeletons driven by inflatable actuators.
This paper presents the design and preliminary feasibility study of a soft robotic glove that utilizes fabric-reinforced soft pneumatic actuators. The intended use of the device is to support the functional tasks during ADLs, such as grasping, for stroke survivors. The objectives of this study were to characterize the soft actuators in terms of their force output and to evaluate the performance of the glove with healthy participants and stroke survivors. The glove was evaluated on five healthy participants in order to determine the ROM of individual finger joints and grip strength achieved with the assistance of the glove. Pilot testing with two stroke survivors was conducted to evaluate the feasibility of the glove in providing grasping assistance for ADL tasks. We hypothesized that with the assistance of the glove, the grasping performance of stroke patients improved.
Specific contributions of this work are listed as follows:
(a) Presented fabric-reinforcement as an alternative method to reinforce soft actuators, which enhanced the bending capability and reduced the required operating pressure of the actuators,
(b) Utilized the inherence compliance of soft actuators and allowed the actuators to achieve multiple motions to support ROM of the human fingers,
(c) Integrated elastic fabric with soft actuators to enhance the extension force for finger extension,
(d) Designed and characterized a soft robotic glove using fabric-reinforced soft actuators with the combination of textile materials, and
(e) Conducted pilot tests with stroke survivors to evaluate the feasibility of the glove in providing functional assistance for ADL tasks.
Design Requirements and Rationale
The design requirements of the glove presented in this paper are similar to those presented by Polygerinos et al. (2015a,b,c) in terms of design considerations, force requirements, and control requirements. For design considerations, weight is the most important design criterion when designing a hand exoskeleton. Previous studies have identified the threshold for acceptable weight of device on the hand, which is in the range of 400–500 g (Aubin et al., 2013; Gasser and Goldfarb, 2015). Cable-driven, hydraulic, and pneumatic driven mechanisms are found to be suitable options to meet the criteria. To develop a fully portable system for practical use in home setting, reduction in the weight of the glove as well as the control system is required. The total weight of the control system should not exceed 3 kg (Polygerinos et al., 2015a,b,c). In this work, the criteria for the weight of the glove and control system are defined as: (a) the weight of the glove should be <200 g, and (b) the weight of the control system should be <1.5 kg.
Considering the weight requirement, hydraulic systems are not ideal for this application, as the requirement of a water reservoir for hydraulic control systems and actuation of the actuators with pressurized water will add extra weight to the hand. The second consideration is that the hand exoskeleton should allow fast setup time. Therefore, it is preferable for the hand exoskeleton to fit the hand anatomy rapidly without precise joint alignment. Compared to cable-driven mechanisms, soft pneumatic actuators are found to be more suitable as they allow rapid customization to different finger length. Additionally, they do not require precise joint alignment and cable routing for actuation as the attachment of the soft pneumatic actuators on the glove is usually simple. Therefore, in this work, pneumatic mechanisms were selected. Using pneumatic mechanism, Connelly et al. and Thielbar et al. have developed a pneumatically actuated glove, PneuGlove that is able to provide active extension assistance to each finger while allowing the wearer to flex the finger voluntarily (Connelly et al., 2010; Thielbar et al., 2014). The device consists of five air bladders on the palmar side of the glove. Inflation of the air bladders due to air pressurization created an extension force that extends the fingers. However, due to the placement of the air bladders on the palmar side, grasping activities such as palmar and pincer grasps were more difficult. Additionally, this device is limited to stroke survivors who are able to flex their fingers voluntarily.
In this work, the soft robotic glove is designed to provide functional grasping assistance for stroke survivors with muscle weakness and impairments in grasping by promoting finger flexion. While the stroke survivors still preserve the ability to modulate grip force within their limited force range, the grip release (i.e., hand opening) is normally prolonged (Lindberg et al., 2012). Therefore, the glove should assist with grip release by allowing passive finger extension via reinforced elastic components, similar to Saeboflex (Farrell et al., 2007) and HandSOME (Brokaw et al., 2011). The elastic components of these devices pull the fingers to the open hand state due to increased tension during finger flexion. Additionally, the glove should generate the grasping force required to manipulate and counteract the weight of the objects of daily living, which are typically below 1.07 kg (Smaby et al., 2004). Additionally, the actuators in the glove should be controlled individually in order to achieve different grasping configurations required in simulated ADL tasks, such as palmar grasp, pincer grasp, and tripod pinch. For the speed of actuation, the glove should reach full grasping motion in <4 s during simulated ADL tasks and rehabilitation training.
For the actuators, we have recently developed a new type of soft fabric-reinforced pneumatic actuator with a corrugated top fabric layer (Yap et al., 2016a) that could minimize the excessive budging and provide better bending capability compared to fiber-reinforced soft actuators developed in previous studies (Polygerinos et al., 2015c,d). This corrugated top fabric layer allows a small initial radial expansion to initiate bending and then constrains further undesired radial expansion (Figure 1). The detailed comparison of the fiber-reinforced actuators and fabric-reinforced actuators can be found in the Supplementary Material.
Figure 1. (A) A fabric-reinforced soft actuators with a corrugated fabric layer and an elastic fabric later [Actuator thickness, T= 12 mm, and length, L = 160 mm (Thumb), 170 mm (Little Finger), 180 mm (Index & Ring Fingers), 185 mm (Middle Finger)]. (B) Upon air pressurization, the corrugated fabric layer unfolds and expands due to the inflation of the embedded pneumatic chamber. Radial budging is constrained when the corrugated fabric layer unfolds fully. The elastic fabric elongates during air pressurization and stores elastic energy. The actuator achieves bending and extending motions at the same time. (C) A bending motion is preferred at the finger joints (II, IV, VI). An extending motion is preferred over the bending motion at the finger segments (I, III, V) and the opisthenar (VII).
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