As a design engineer in the robotic material handling field, I am always looking for new and innovative ways to handle different types of products. About a year ago, I was briefly introduced to a new robotic end effector technology that I thought would be worth spending the time to research and share.
To the right, is a robotic end of arm tool that was the result of collaboration between the University of Chicago, Cornell University, and iRobot Corporation. The individuals leading the research were Hod Lipson, associate professor of mechanical engineering and computer design at Cornell; Heinrich Jaeger from University of Chicago; and Chris Jones from iRobot.
The robotic end effector works using a latex balloon filled with normal coffee grounds that presses down on an object deforming around it. The tool then uses a vacuum to suck the air out of the balloon, solidifying the grip on the object. Next the vacuum releases and the balloon becomes soft again, letting go of the object.
The potential applications for this technology are nearly endless. Some examples would be uses in the military to diffuse bombs or move dangerous objects. These tools could be put on the feet of a robot that could walk on walls or they could be put on the ends of prosthetic limbs. Not to mention the vast options in a factory or manufacturing setting.
This universal end effector works through a process called “jamming” in which an uncompressed granular material will be soft and flow freely, but when compressed, will act like a solid. Think of a vacuum sealed bag of coffee you buy at a store. It is as hard as a brick until you release the vacuum seal.
“The ground coffee grains are like lots of small gears,” Lipson said. “When they are not pressed together they can roll over each other and flow. When they are pressed together just a little bit, the teeth interlock, and they become solid.”
Its airtight seal allows for uses in wet or volatile environments. It can be used when little information is known about an object before it is to be picked, or when the precise location of the object will not be known.
Check out this cool technology in action: