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This paper describes a novel actuation system for very compact and light-weight robotic devices, like artificial hands. The actuation concept presented here allows the implementation of powerful tendon-based driving systems, using as actuators small-size DC motors characterized by high speed and low torque. After the presentation of the basic concept of this novel actuation system, the constitutive equations of the system are given, validated by means of laboratory tests. Moreover, the problem of tracking a desired actuation force profile is taken into account, considering as load a mass-spring-damper system. A control algorithm based on a second-order sliding manifold has been firstly evaluated by means of simulations, and then validated by experiments. This output-feedback controller has been chosen to guarantee a high level of robustness against disturbances, parameter variations and uncertainties while maintaining a low computational burden.