Monday, July 18, 2016

2016-07-18: Autonomy Incubator Intern Jacob Beck Develops Soft Gripper

Jacob Beck is a returning intern in the Autonomy Incubator (Ai); like so many of us, he couldn't stay away for too long. Jacob's project this summer is a new iteration of his work at the Ai last year: a UAV-mounted soft gripper that modulates air pressure inside hollow rubber fingers to grip and release.

"This is, I'd say, the third generation," he said of his newest gripper. The first version Jacob ever attempted was a replica of the gripper from this paper by Dr. George M. Whitesides' lab at Harvard University.

The second version, well. The second version experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly during his exit presentation last spring. But, we all learned a valuable lesson about rubber viscosity and failure points that day.

In order to make his soft gripper, Jacob 3D-printed a custom mold and filled it with silicone rubber. When the outer layer inflates, the gripper's fingers curl in. Jacob estimates that his latest model will have enough strength to lift about 200 grams, once he gets the correct rubber to cast it in. 200 grams might seem small, but it's the perfect strength to pick up the ozone sensors for the Ai's atmospheric science mission.

"[The gripper] will curl completely inward at 10 psi," he said, before putting the air flow tube to his mouth and puffing. The fingers of the gripper twitched inward a fraction of an inch. It was kind of unsettling in a fascinating, can't-stop-looking way; I'm not used to seeing robotics components look so organic. Here, watch this video of a soft gripper from the Whitesides Research Group at Harvard and you'll see what I mean. The technology is so unique, and Jacob is capitalizing on it to make our UAVs more adaptable in their package pick-up and drop-off.

"I'm writing a paper to document my soft gripper use on a drone, which as far as I can tell will be the first time anyone's done something like that," he said.

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