Something many of us take for granted is our hands. For the roughly 6.5 million people in the U.S. with impaired hand function—whether it’s from ALS or stroke, not being able to grasp something is a harsh reality. But the rapidly growing field of soft robotics could potentially change that, bringing them closer to regaining independence.

At the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, robotics expert and biomedical engineer Conor Walsh and a team of engineers are developing a soft robotic glove so those with loss of hand motor control can grab something and pick it up—a task that can be challenging, if not impossible, for those with a neurological condition, partial spinal cord injury or recovering from stroke.

"So you may be familiar with Iron Man or other exo-skeletons in Hollywood," said Walsh. "And they are really interesting because they give people superhuman strength. But the practical challenges of assisting people with those components can be hard because it’s hard to use rigid systems to align with the biological joints."

Funded largely by the National Science Foundation, Walsh, a core faculty member at Wyss, and his team instead are using silicone, Kevlar and spandex—flexible materials that can line up easily with the joints in our hands. And by using electrodes that are mounted on the arm, the glove can detect when someone wants to make a certain move.

“So that the person wants to grasp the object, the glove can detect the intent and allow that person to then not have to concentrate too hard to use it. So with these materials you could put on this glove and when it’s not powered, you could move your hand as you normally would, but as soon as you power it, it’s able to comfortably apply forces to the hand to help a person close their hand.” Walsh said.

Inside the Wyss lab space, mechanical engineer Kevin Galloway, demonstrates how the prototype works.

“The whole design is an open palm design. We found that with some participants, their hands are kind of in a contracted state, so it makes it easier to insert their fingers into the sleeves with this open palm design.”

Fitting each individual finger into the glove, and fastening the Velcro strap around the wrist, it’s evident that help would be required in putting on the glove.

“Most of these people will have a loved one or personal care assistant to put it on. It’s something they can wear for 4,5,6 hours a day while they are alone, and enables them to pick up objects in every day living, like a phone, paper and cup and give them essentially more freedom than they have now.” Galloway said.

The Wyss team worked closely with people with muscular dystrophy from the early stages of their research and development. Participants told them what worked and what didn’t.

After Galloway fastens the glove, he pushes a button that activates the hydraulics that powers the actuators. His fingers steadily curl into a loose fist.

“So these essentially act like muscles on top of your hand. As they are being pressurized, they are pushing your fingers to close, you also get the added benefit that they become stiffer as they are being pressurized.” Galloway said.

What’s under the spandex are actuators made of silicone and fiberglass. The current prototype is powered by hydraulics, but they plan on using pneumatic—or air pressure moving forward. Seeing the actuators in their original form, it’s clear where the knuckles are once Galloway starts pumping. The silicone bends in three parts—mimicking our own fingers’ range of motion.

This combination is what makes the glove so light and flexible and easily customized to fit any individual hand. The low cost of these materials also positions the glove well for mass production potential, which Conor Walsh says could happen in three years. For now, though, these engineers are focusing on the task at hand.


Grip Glove Study Info


Do you have limited upper extremity function due to Stroke, Spinal Cord Injury, Muscular Dystrophy or ALS?

We are developing a soft wearable device to assist with range of motion and function for adults with limited use of one or both hands. During this research study, you will be asked to assist by providing information about your strength and range of motion and testing the device components.

One session may last up to 3 hours; you may volunteer to participate in multiple sessions.

Eligible participants:

• Are between 18-70 years old

• Have an upper extremity impairment affecting strength or range of motion on one or

both sides, due to Stroke, Spinal Cord Injury, Muscular Dystrophy or ALS

• Are willing to participate in multiple study sessions and take part in testing without the

device, and with the device in an unpowered and powered state.

• Are comfortable with having study visits photographed and/or videotaped

For more information or to participate, contact: or 617-432-8227