Greasing Robot Hands: Variable Friction Makes Robo-Mitts More Like Our Own

Unless you are in the fields of robotics or prosthetics, you likely take for granted the fine motor skills our hands have. Picking up and using a pen is no small feat for a robot which doesn’t have a dedicated pen-grabbing apparatus. Holding a mobile phone with the same gripper is equally daunting, not to mention moving that phone around once it has been grasped. Part of the wonder of our hands is the shape and texture which allows pens and phones to slide around at one moment, and hold fast the next moment. Yale’s Grab Lab has built a gripper which starts to solve that problem by changing the friction of the manipulators.

A spring-loaded set of slats with a low-friction surface allow a held object to move freely, but when more pressure is exerted by the robot, the slats retract and a high-friction surface contacts the object. This is similar to our fingers with their round surfaces. When we brush our hands over something lightly, they graze the surface but when we hold tight, our soft flesh meets the surface of the object and we can hold tightly. The Grab Lab is doing a great job demonstrating the solution and taking steps to more capable robots. All hail Skynet.

We have no shortage of gripper designs to choose from, including pneumatic silicone and one that conforms to an object’s surface, similar to our hands.

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Gecko Feet in Space

Space is a mess, and the sad truth is, we made it that way. Most satellites that have been lofted into Earth orbit didn’t have a plan for retiring them, and those dead hulks, along with the various bits of jetsam in the form of shrouds, fairings, and at least one astronaut’s glove, are becoming a problem.

A mission intended to clean up space junk would be fantastically expensive, but money isn’t the only problem. It turns out that it’s really hard to grab objects in space unless they were specifically designed to be grabbed. Suction cups won’t work in the vacuum of space, not everything up there is ferromagnetic, and mechanical grippers would have to deal with a huge variety of shapes, sizes,¬†and textures.

But now news comes from Stanford University of a dry adhesive based on the same principle a gecko uses to walk up a wall. Gecko feet have microscopic flaps that stick to surfaces because of Van der Waals forces. [Mark Cutkosky] and his team’s adhesive works similarly, adhering to surfaces only when applied in a certain direction. This is an advantage over traditional pressure-sensitive adhesives; the force needed to apply them would cause the object to float away in space. The Stanford grippers have been tested on the “vomit comet” and aboard the ISS.

We can think of tons of terrestrial applications for this adhesive, including the obvious wall-walking robots. The Stanford team also lists landing pads for drones that would let then perch in odd locations, which we find intriguing.

Need to get up to speed on more mundane adhesive? Check out our guide to sticky stuff for the shop.

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