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Flexible robot grippers


The human hand is a marvel of biological engineering and is, without a doubt, incredibly valuable. So if you had to cope with a robotic, two-fingered hand for the rest of your life, chances are you would be more than a little nervous. Aside from the “inconvenience” of having your hand spontaneously morph into an artificial piece of metal, thereby sending you and everyone in a five-mile radius into an unabated panic and causing news crews and scientists around the world to ravenously document your mishap, as well as being the subject of discussion and gossip on the Facebooks and Twitters and having your name and accident forever immortalized in a meme, day-to-day tasks would become nigh impossible. Priorities, right?


All grippers created thus far have failed to replicate both the functionality and adaptability of the human hand. Until now, that is.

However, what may appear to be a serious hindrance in terms of interacting with the world to us humans is, in fact, just another day at the factory for robots in their monotonous lives of ceaseless service. Since time immemorial, our solution to industrialization and mass production has been a series of rigid joints and beams related to our complex fleshy water bags only in name. From welding to car assembly, the situation is the same everywhere you look: Confined and halting movements suited only to one or a few particular functions, with inexorable “hands” at the helm of it all. Want to build something or pick up an object but your current arms and hands aren’t currently suited to that job? Too bad! You’ll just have to build another highly specific robot! Wash, rinse, repeat.

The new rubber gripper from EPFL consists of two opposing flaps. These flaps are composed of five layers of material each: Pre-stretched rubber in between two layers of electrodes, all in between two layers of silicon of different thicknesses; this disparity of depth causes the flaps to curve outward when off.

Luckily, a few people from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), one of the most prestigious research universities in the world based in Lausanne, Switzerland, have come forth to deliver us from this appendage aggravation. They’ve developed a rubber gripper outfitted with flexible electrodes and embedded with conductive strips capable of lifting objects of almost any shape and delicacy, from eggs and fruit to something a hundred times the gripper’s own weight. What sets this gripper apart from all of the flexible grippers that came before it is its ability to do this without any calibration or settings beforehand, foregoing tedious measurements in favor of out-of-the-box functionality.

“This is the first time that electroadhesion and soft robotics have been combined together to grasp objects.”

—Jun Shintake, doctoral student at EPFL and first author of an article detailing the grippers.

The gripper harnesses the power of electroadhesion to make this possible, which is the same force that causes plastic to stick to your hand or a balloon to stick to a wall after you’ve rubbed it against your hair. When on, electricity courses through the conductive strips, causing the flaps of the gripper to curve inward towards the item. Using electrostatic electricity (not to be confused with electroadhesion, mind you), the flaps are able to conform to the shape of the object; an electrostatic field at the tips of the grippers causes them to stick to the item, lifting it up shortly afterwards. This process of curving, sticking, and lifting is very much like how a human hand would do so with an object, in a process known as “muscle flexion.”

The university sees its invention being used in areas from prosthetics to food to even space debris. Admittedly, the gripper doesn’t solve the problem of rigid and metal arms, but it does make some pretty big strides away from it.

Once you’re fed up with trying to use your two-fingered hand, perhaps you’ll be struck with the desire to move to the next generation and get yourself one of these new grippers. The price and availability might be a problem, but regardless, you’ll once again be the talk of the town on the news channels and the social medias.

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Disney Robots?!

These days, Disney is everywhere; your tv shows, movies, memes, and even oranges have some sort of connection with Disney. With all this Disney in your life, it only makes sense that they start automating their hold on our lives.

This is where the VertiGo comes into play. Designed by Disney Research and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, this minibot is able to drive on horizontal and vertical spaces, transitioning between the two automatically and seamlessly.

To achieve its vertical climb, the VertiGo uses two propeller blades that are angled away from the robot, pushing it against and up the wall. So next time you hear a robot buzzing outside your window, it might just be Disney, getting a feel for what type of princess movie you want next.

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Here we are with another step towards a life of automation. Whether you’re feeling a rush to recycle, or feel like going on a trek for trash, fear not. You don’t need to do it yourself. Just send a ROARing robot to do it for you!

Currently in development by Volvo and roboticists from Mälardalen University in Sweden, the Robot-based Autonomous Refuse handling (ROAR) project is aiming to help fulfill Volvo’s goal of a future with more automation. These robots will rid the need of the sanitation workers behind the truck, and will dump the refuse bins with ease.

In the U.S, students at Penn State’s Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute will design the virtual system and control panel that the drivers will need to control the robots, from the comfort of the drivers seat.

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Robot Stocker

No, no, no. Not robot stalker, it’s a robot stocker!!! Oh, you.

Is it not infuriating when you go all the way to the grocer just to find out that they’re out of the organic, gluten free, and less-salted chips? Fear not, this robot will help combat lazy and inattentive store employees and make sure that your hippie dietary preferences are fulfilled! Tally, made by Simbe Robotics, “performs the repetitive and laborious tasks of auditing shelves for out-of-stock items, low stock items, misplaced items, and pricing errors.

The host of a myriad of on-board sensors, Tally is safe around humans during the busiest hours, to ensure that all of your needs are met in this hectic holiday season.

Simbe Robotics – Meet Tally from Simbe Robotics on Vimeo.

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Many Chinese kids probably know the ancient war story where a general convinced the rival nation’s king to tie all their boats together to reduce sea sickness, and then proceeded to burn all the connected ships down. If you haven’t heard that story before, go look it up, it’s pretty funny.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP labs (more specifically, the ModLab) have developed a bunch of robots with the similar idea, albeit for a different purpose. The Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform, or TEMP, is a series of robots, which detached, act as their own vessels, but when connected, provide a stable and robust surface on which vehicles, supplies and much more can be moved over bodies of water which would have been impossible before.

This system is a 1:12 scale of what the ModLab is proposing to DARPA. In the video, you can see the shipping container robots all hook up together, to form a path for a much larger RC car to drive across.

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Robot Scrubber

If robot cleaning was a sport, this bot would definitely get called in after every match and be checked for RGH (Robot growth hormones) and other robot-steroids. Rockin’ a smooth kiwi-drive, it traverses long and busy hallways without causing a single casualty. With both brush and vacuum capabilities, it is suitable for any type of flooring. It’s name? The ARS-2.

The Avidbots machine sports two types of cleaning systems, disc and cylindrical, has a recover/solution tank of 115 liters (that’s 30.3798 gallons to you Americans), and boasts a max productivity of 47,000 square feet an hour.

This cross between a Zamboni and iRobot also has an awesome kiwi-drive system, which is comprised of 3 omni-directional wheels (we’ll call them “omni’s” for short) that are each placed at an angle away from each other. The omni’s have rollers along the circumference of the wheel, and allow for side-to-side motion.

Yep, a kiwi drive isn’t made with kiwis…sorry to disappoint.

Come to think of it…this robot kind of reminds me of a Star Wars droid…or is that just me.

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Eco-warrior Robot Swan

Next time you’re out on the lake, enjoying a nice fishing trip or whatever, and see a single, lone swan, you might want to watch your waste (as you always should).

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have recently created the NUSwan, robotic swans that can track water quality and upload data in real-time. But why a swan? Maybe because they wanted to incorporate the university’s initials into its name. Maybe because swans are just really cool. In reality, the researchers wanted to make something rather inconspicuous to blend in with the environment in bodies of water near industrial plants, recreational activities…etc.

The swans can be outfitted with a variety of sensors, and can measure the amount of dissolved oxygen in the waters, the oceans pH levels, turbidity and chlorophyll…etc. They can also be remotely controlled or can run completely autonomously, using GPS to track its coordinates, and coming back to its recharging port when needed.

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