Sarcomere Dynamics’ robotic hands are within touching distance
The Vancouver-based startup has built a prototype to replace “dull, dirty, and dangerous” work.
Sarcomere Dynamics is not your average family business. Think of multi-generational companies, and you’ll likely imagine shops, restaurants, or farms. Not robotic hands.
Sarcomere is the brainchild of Avtar Mandaher, the startup’s chief technology officer. An integrated engineer from UBC, the then-student began building prosthetic hands as a hobby project, 3D-printing different iterations for his design courses. After graduation, he realized that while prosthetics had potential in the market, the true gap lay in robotizing his designs. Handling nuclear waste, picking Amazon packages, chopping peppers for supermarkets – an enormous spread of industries could be transformed, Avtar considered, if he was able to build an appendage that could operate with similar dexterity to a human’s, and at a cheaper price than those already available.
He wasn’t alone in his vision. Upon acceptance to the entrepreneurship@UBC program – an initiative that supports UBC students, staff, faculty, and alumni to develop their ventures – Avtar was told early on by its mentors that achieving his ambitious goal would be near-impossible as a solopreneur. Luckily, he had the ideal support team. Both of Avtar’s parents were in the process of drawing up plans to start their own company. When their son asked for their input, they were more than happy to sign on to his product.
“We ultimately ended up taking over all the administration that goes into putting together a startup,” Avtar’s father, Harpal Mandaher, tells Vancouver Tech Journal. “So that's where Nancy [Mandaher, Avtar’s mother] and I come in. We provide the admin piece – the leadership and planning long term. And we meet as a board of three, if you want to call that a board, where we look at where we want to go, and then we break away and Avtar’s focus is on the tech. He's iterating on that very quickly with that singular focus [...] Long story short, we jumped in, and we put the other company on pause. And this allows us to focus our efforts as well as spend more time together as a family as we push the thing forward. It's a family opportunity that just happened to be around robotic hands.”
The product has already undergone several leaps forward. Beginning with 3D-printed materials and off-the-shelf actuators (the mechanical parts that make the hand move), Avtar was able to create a working prototype swiftly and cheaply. It didn’t, however, live up to his goals for what a robotic hand could do.
“The performance wasn’t what I wanted it to be,” he recalls. “It wasn’t able to grab the things that my hand could grab – it had these limitations. And that was when I started looking at alternatives for the actuation solution. And that just was a rabbit hole – I just kind of fell down.”
The current robotic hands on the market fall short of matching human excellence. The mechanical appendages that are strong tend to be heavy, slow, and can be bulky. But by working with shape memory materials, Avtar aims to build a hand reliant on an actuator with a compact form factor, which is lightweight, and reaches near-human levels of grip strength. He’s well on the way to achieving it.
“What can it do?” he asks of the current prototype. “Almost as much as your hand. So in terms of dexterity, we have 19-degrees-of-freedom on our version one. We're still going to continue with the 19-degrees-of-freedom, we believe, for version two. The version one hits about one kilogram of force at the fingertip. And people will do about 3.7 to 4.7 kilograms, of course, at the fingertip. Most robotic hands are barely able to achieve one kilogram at the fingertip when you add all the dexterity to be close to the human hand. But the newest hand that we're going to be demoing soon should be producing two kilograms of force at the fingertip. And we hope to get closer and closer to that mirror image of a machine version of the human hand.”
For Harpal, the promise that the hand shows is personal. Sarcomere’s creation has the potential to lift the burden from workers in jobs he calls “dull, dirty, and dangerous.” Having earned an accomplished military career in the Canadian Armed Forces, Harpal knows from experience how the appendage could help clear mines and improvised explosive devices in warzones, and save lives in the process. But the hand makes him think of his background for more than just its capability as a peacekeeping tool.
“My mother worked in a packing plant when I was young, and they actually had to go into a freezer,” Harpal says. “All day in the freezer, the people had to wear mukluks and big, heavy coats. As the produce came in, it had to be flash frozen. And then they had to be inspected, and little things sorted out of it – stuff that wasn't considered food taken out. This covered everything from brussels sprouts, broccoli, beans, you name it – it just happened all year long. And the people were working 24-hour shifts. So, imagine: somebody had to be in the freezer all day. And I still remember my mother complaining about the arthritis and the cold. Remembering staying eight hours, standing still in a freezer – it does a number on your knees.”
The reason that manual work like his mother’s has yet to be automated is because the cost of mechanization is too high, and the price of labour at the entry level is too cheap. Nevertheless, Harpal believes that the economy has reached a confluence point where Sarcomere’s hand could help workforces move beyond undesirable, backbreaking tasks.
“I think we're at the point where, due to inflation, and minimal wages going up, inflationary costs are putting pressure on people to pay their workers more,” Harpal says. “And with that, the cost of robotics at the same time is coming down. And with technology like that, after making it more capable, more economical – everything is coming together, where you may see a surge in automation in fields that it just was not possible, and just not desired. So we may be at the lead and the front-end of the wave that's coming our way. And we’ve got the tool, then, that makes this possible.”
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