This Robotic Gripper Uses A Gecko-Inspired Adhesive Coating To Grip And Lift Heavy Objects

[Image Credit: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering]

A joint team of researchers from the University of California San Diego (UCSD), Stanford University, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has designed a new type of robotic gripper that is able to grip a wide variety of objects and can lift up to 45 lbs (20 kg). Researchers have designed this gripper by combining the adhesive properties of gecko toes and the adaptability of air-powered soft robots.

According to researchers, this robotic gripper could be used to grasp and lift objects in different settings, from factory floors to the International Space Station.

The findings of the new research, published in the journal IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, will be presented at the 2018 International Conference on Robotics and Automation that is scheduled to be held in Brisbane, Australia in last week of May.

Geckos are considered one of the best climbers in the world, thanks to a sophisticated gripping mechanism on their toes, featuring millions of microscopic hairs, about 20 to 30 times smaller than a human hair. It is these hairs that give geckos ability to climb on virtually any surface. The hairs have tiny nanostructures. The interaction between the nanostructures and the molecules on the surface – powered by van der Waals forces – causes the gecko’s toes to easily attach and detach as required.

In a previous work, a team of researchers at Stanford University and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) had succeeded in recreating Geckos’ gripping mechanism with the help of a synthetic material. This material, called gecko-inspired adhesive, was shown to work on flat surfaces like walls.

In the current research, Stanford University researchers collaborated with engineers at UCSD, and coated the fingers of a soft robotic gripper with the gecko adhesive, which allowed the gripper to have a firmer grasp on a variety of objects (such as pipes, mugs as well as rough, porous objects like volcanic rocks) and in different positions (angles). The gripper was also found to be able to grip and lift pieces of large, cylindrical pipes.

“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 UCSD.

According to researchers, gecko adhesives work best when they have a large contact surface area. In the current work, it was ensured that the gripper’s fingers would maintain constant contact with the surface of any object. The researchers also focused on distributing forces on surfaces that aren’t flat to optimize the performance of gecko-inspired adhesives.