University of California San Diego (UCSD) engineers have built a new robotic gripper that combines the adhesive properties of gecko toes with the adaptability of air-powered soft robots.
The gripper – which is based on a previous Stanford-NASA study led by Professor Aaron Parness – can lift up to 45 lbs. and could be used to grasp objects in a wide range of settings, from factory floors to the International Space Station.
Parness and his team had created a synthetic material called a gecko-inspired adhesive as part of their study.
Now UCSD engineers have coated the fingers of a soft robotic gripper with the gecko adhesive, allowing it to get a firmer grasp on a wide range of objects, while still being able to handle rough objects like rocks.
According to the researchers, the gripper can grasp and manipulate rough, porous and dirty objects, such as volcanic rocks – a task that is typically challenging for gecko adhesives.
It can also pick up pieces of large, cylindrical pipe – a task typically difficult for soft robotic grippers.
“We realized that these two components, soft robotics and gecko adhesives, complement each other really well,” said Paul Glick, the paper’s first author and a Ph.D. student in the Bioinspired Robotics and Design Lab at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.
Because gecko adhesives are powered by molecular interactions between surfaces, they work best when they have a large contact surface area.
Coating the inside of the soft robotic fingers with these adhesives maximizes the amount of surface area they make contact with, ensuring a better grip.
The engineering team have also resolved two different problems found in the previous paper:
First and foremost, the gripper’s fingers have been fine tuned to maintain constant contact with the surface of any object.
Secondly, the researchers have focused on distributing forces on surfaces that aren’t flat to optimize the performance of gecko-inspired adhesives.
The team did this by using a high-strength fabric embedded in the finger that can easily bend but resists stretching to support larger loads.
Image, video and content: JPL/University of California San Diego (UCSD)