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Electrostatics: Good for Robot Grippers, and Lots More

Grabit makes electrostatic grippers for robots, but the tech is much more versatile

2 min read
Electrostatics: Good for Robot Grippers, and Lots More
Image: Grabit

We first covered SRI’s electroadhesion tech in 2010 (although it’s been public since at least 2008). More recently, SRI spun it out into a company called Grabit. Grabit was demonstrating an electrostatic gripper at RoboBusiness earlier this month, so we thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the more exciting stuff that SRI has done with electroadhesion, including conveyors, climbing robots, and delivery drones.

Here’s the gripper that Grabit was demoing in Boston:

Electroadhesion can introduce a “stickyness” in just about anything that you can turn on and off whenever you want. It’s sort of like duct tape that comes with a toggle switch. The flexible bits are electrodes that generate alternating positive and negative charges, inducing opposite (i.e. attractive) charges in whatever they’re close to (anything at all, conductive or not), causing them to stick. Like geckotape, electrostatics depend on a lot of surface contact to adhere well, which is a problem if you’re trying to attach to surfaces that aren’t flat. Grabit’s “fingered” gripper is compliant enough to get around that issue.

As far as a business model goes, grabbing stuff is probably the best way to actually, you know, make money or whatever. If you like that sort of thing. But there are other interesting applications, like climbing walls:

Here’s a slightly wobbly YouTube video:

Electroadhesive surfaces stick to things, but that also means that things stick to electroadhesive surfaces. Flip the gripper idea around, and you get a conveyor belt that can grab onto objects and carry them up at steep angles:

And no demo of any robotic technology would be complete without delivery drone integration:

[ Grabit ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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