Robotic arm with grain-filled sack instead of fingers  (Source: John Amend)
"Universal gripper" eliminates the need to program individual joints

University of Chicago and Cornell University researchers have designed a robotic arm that is capable of performing every day tasks such as writing, drawing and serving drinks. But what makes this robotic arm special is that it can complete these common tasks without fingers

Eric Brown, lead author of the study and a physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, along with John Amend, co-author of the study and an engineering student at Cornell University, have designed and developed a robotic arm that can grasp and control household objects without the use of fingers.

While fingers and thumbs are necessary for humans to pick up a glass of water or write with a pen, Brown explains that fingers and thumbs on a robot would be more difficult than helpful. The fingers would require a computer to manipulate several individual joints, and in the past, robots have sometimes proved to be sloppy with the use of their fingers. Sometimes the robots grip too hard and break the item they're holding, and other times they don't grip the item very well at all and drop it. 

But now, Brown and Amend have created a "universal gripper" that omits the use of fingers completely on a robotic arm. Instead, there is a small rubber sack at the end of the arm which contains small glass spheres or coffee grains. When the rubber sack touches a desired object, a pipe sucks air from the sack in order to mold the rubber sack to the object's shape and cause it to contract. The contraction is a one percent change in volume, but it is enough to grab most items.

The idea of using a grain or rubber sack is not new, though. However, Corey O'Hern, a physicist at Yale University who did not participate in this study, did mention that this is the first time a study had been completed with so much detail and proper testing. 

"This seems like a much better way to go," said O'Hern.

Amend notes that the universal gripper's greatest advantage is its versatility, but adds that it has some trouble picking up flat objects, porous objects and objects bigger than half its size. But despite these limitations, Amends says "as long as the gripper can fold about one-fourth of the object's surface, it can pick up just about any shape thrown in its path."

O'Hern offered advice in regards to the gripper's problem with picking up certain objects, saying that Brown and Amend should make the sack stickier. But on that same note, having the gripper let go of an object would be more difficult that way.

Brown and Amend hope the fingerless robotic arm can be used for amputees in the future. This particular design, with a little work, could improve the way tens of thousands of patients in the United States function on a daily basis, and without having to control eight individual fingers and two thumbs, using this robotic arm would be simple. 

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