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Fueling a Robotic Arms Race

Rocket propellant to make prosthetic arms better, stronger, faster

3 min read

14 December 2007—To let Hollywood tell it, robots are ultrapowerful machines with seemingly inexhaustible stamina. In last summer’s CGI extravaganza Transformers , shape-shifting robots swatted cars and trucks aside like gnats at a barbecue and effortlessly outpaced fleeing humans—who, by comparison, were inferior in every regard.

But the physics of the cineplex don’t hold true in the real world. Here, even the best humanoid robots don’t hold a candle to the race upon which they’re based. At 129 kilograms and just 1.6 meters in height, Honda’s P3 robot, for example, is a dumpy weakling that moves no faster than a slow walk (2 kilometers per hour), largely because it’s saddled with 30 kg of batteries that can power it for only 20 minutes on a single charge, notes Michael Goldfarb, a mechanical engineering professor at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. For nearly a decade, Goldfarb has been researching ways to develop high-power, high-energy-density approaches to powering human-scale robots and may have hit on a solution: rocket fuel. He’s demonstrating its superiority over battery power with a lifelike prosthetic arm that he and his graduate students built from scratch.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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