How a handy material could be used to make smart gloves

22 Nov 2022

Image: Dr Rupal Srivastava

Dr Rupal Srivastava tells us how she switched into smart wearables and is now working on tech that could be used for industrial IoT and much more.

Dr Rupal Srivastava is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Smart 4.0 fellow at Confirm, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for smart manufacturing.

She completed her PhD at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur in 2021. At its Smart Materials, Structures and Systems Laboratory, she worked on the experimental and numerical studies of the active vibration and shape control of adaptive composites.

Now based at the Athlone campus of Technological University of the Shannon, Srivastava’s research is focused on smart wearables. She is exploring the use of shape memory alloys – which can be deformed but return to their original shape after being heated – in smart gloves for collaborative robotic applications.

‘As we focus more on interactive and collaborative environments, the requirement for a tool to bridge the gap between a robot and a human becomes essential’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

My PhD thesis was on the thermoelastic and vibration response analysis of shape memory alloy (SMA) embedded smart composites. During my PhD, I also worked on a robot to imitate thought-based hand gestures for my Sakura Research Fellowship at Kyutech, Japan. The interesting behaviour of SMAs and the curiosity to create a bridge between human-robot interaction sparked the idea for the SMA-based hand exoskeleton (SM-EXO).

SM-EXO aims to develop a novel hand gesture recognition technique by using the kinaesthetic feedback from the finger joint movements. We have SMA-embedded sleeves for the thumb, index and middle fingers, which can be attached to any hand glove. The individual and a combination of finger movement readings are then used as commands for soft gripper robots and interactive toys.

Using a three-finger approach, we can achieve seven commands depending upon single or multiple finger movements. The individual finger commands will control the translational and rotational movement of the gripper, whereas the finger combination signals for the gripping mechanism.

For the proof-of-concept prototype, we have combined the smart glove with interactive toys and are currently working on finding methods to use the set-up to better understand autism spectrum disorder in children and/or use it as a learning tool.

The team working on the project come with expertise in multiple fields such as materials, quality of experience analysis, AR/VR environments, digital twins, robotics, cybersecurity and mechanical engineering. The scientific mix of their skills will expand the product and meet the end goal of creating high-impact research.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

As we focus more and more on interactive and collaborative environments, smart factories, industry 4.0 and the internet of things (IoT), the requirement for a tool to bridge the gap between a robot and a human becomes essential.

The SM-EXO can not only integrate into industrial IoT but also be used in several other application domains such as medical assistance, interactive environments and interacting with mobile interfaces. The main benefit of the current SM-EXO prototype is its low cost (under €300), low weight (under 50g) and portability.

The conventional smart and haptic gloves available in the market and in literature usually rely on image processing and gesture recognition technology, which depend heavily on a massive amount of data collection and analysis. With the SM-EXO, we only capture the kinaesthetic feedback from the finger, removing any data analysis and allowing us to capture discreet signals.

This makes it an ideal candidate for applications that require fixed signs and easy integration. The smoother learning curve and the organic movement of the SM-EXO make it an efficient solution to industrial IoT integration-related challenges.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Growing up, a scientific curiosity has always surrounded me, but the decision to get into academia came after I experienced the impact of research during my master’s. The flexibility to choose a research topic, dig deep into the depths of literature, and find a gap to fill or a bridge to build is an exciting process.

A lecturer at my undergraduate college asked me what my plans were after graduation, and I told him that I wanted to go for master’s and experience what research is. He insisted that I must find a job in IT instead since, as a woman, I must get married soon. Somehow this conversation converted my thoughts into a decision, and I went for higher studies.

Similarly, during a job interview after my master’s, the interviewers suggested that I should go for a PhD since my expectations from the job were similar to a researcher’s lifestyle. I decided to pursue a PhD from one of the top institutes in the country – an institute with a high cut-off and a very low acceptance rate.

Hence, the drive to become a researcher has been a bit of curiosity-driven self-motivation, external criticism and underestimation. The casual sexism women still face in academia is high, and it is our duty to prove people otherwise to make our well-deserved space.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

While I worked purely on smart materials, mathematical and numerical modelling, and experimental thermoelastic and vibration analysis of composites, in my postdoctoral research project I am working on smart wearables, smart gloves and human-robot interaction.

The biggest challenge has been to grasp the fundamentals of the field and the biggest misconception in the scientific community is that one cannot make such switches. Researchers usually suggest each other to make subtle changes to their areas of interest but never entirely change their domain, especially after a PhD.

To this, I would say that the boundaries of science are infinite. It is never too early or late to change one’s area of interest. One can gain knowledge and expertise in one field and use it for the benefit of another field. One should not be afraid of doing that.

The future is multi-disciplinary and the future is now. This will broaden researchers’ skillsets and make them more capable as supervisors or teachers. Such transitions indeed come with many challenges, but in this day and age, when there’s so much knowledge on the internet, it is easier to understand any field.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

I believe public engagement in science has increased since the Covid-19 pandemic. Even though the number of in-person events reduced, we have seen more and more people finding the opportunity to attend online seminars, conferences, workshops and even courses.

A boom in the field of online education was seen during the pandemic, which is still very much at the same pace. People are trying to understand how things work and many social media accounts on Twitter, Instagram and even TikTok about science and engineering have popped up with immensely in-depth researched content.

I try to participate in as many education and public engagement activities that come my way, be it being on a discussion panel during the Berlin Science Week, collaborating with arts students from the University of Limerick to express STEM through arts, or giving a talk at the ML-Labs Summer School.

As my project directly finds the need to evaluate the SM-EXO in terms of human comfort and acceptance, the latter part of the project focuses on a human-factor study. Not only is it essential to include the public and stakeholders in a project to understand the impact, but it is also essential to understand and note their opinions of the project while we go forward. This not only helps us design better technology, but it also helps the public to easily accept new and upcoming technology.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.