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'Soft' robotics technology moves from research to commercialisation

12 January 2014

A robot gripper invented by researchers at the University of Chicago and Cornell University is now available commercially through spin-out, Empire Robotics.

Versaball is shown here dexterously picking up a shock absorber (image courtesy of Empire Robotics)

“When we first started with the universal jamming gripper we did not think about industrial applications,” says University of Chicago's Professor Heinrich Jaeger. “But soon there were inquiries from various companies and in those early days we had to tell them that we are in basic research rather than R&D and that therefore we could not really make robotic grippers for sale.”

But since then John Amend, one of Jaeger’s Cornell collaborators, has co-founded Empire Robotics to bring the robot gripper technology to market. Amend, the company’s chief technology officer, developed much of the core technology as a PhD student at Cornell. His adviser was robot gripper co-inventor Hod Lipson, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell.

“With our grippers we’re able to handle a wide range of different objects on the same manufacturing line. We get a lot of requests for objects with holes in the centre like hex-nuts, glass or plastic bottles, and objects that have odd shapes or shapes that vary between the individual parts,” Amend said.

It is believed that the technology might have broader impacts as well, including prosthetic devices that can assist with work tasks, in-home assistive devices and versions suited for mobile military robots.

Robotic grippers that “jam” granular materials by vacuum-packing first came to light in 2010 as part of a collaboration between researchers at Cornell, UChicago and iRobot, and funded by DARPA, the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The science behind the gripper is a physical phenomenon called the jamming transition, investigated by Jaeger and colleagues Professor Sidney Nagel and Professor Thomas Witten. Through jamming granular materials or particles, which can flow and act like a fluid when loosely packed, the materials interlock to become rock-solid when packed together.

This phenomenon is familiar to coffee drinkers who buy vacuum-packed coffee, which is hard as a brick until the package is unsealed. In fact, early jamming gripper prototypes were composed of ground coffee inside a party balloon.

Versaball grippers take advantage of this jamming behaviour so that when the gripper is soft, it can be pressed against an object—passively conforming to take the object’s shape. The gripper then vacuum-hardens to grasp the object firmly. It’s a sharp deviation from the way other robot grippers work, but this simple idea is now poised to solve a broad range of automation challenges.

Empire Robotics is now taking orders for the limited first release of Versaball, scheduled to ship later this month.


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