Back in 2010, we first heard about a clever device known as the robotic universal jamming gripper. With its business end composed of a party balloon filled with coffee grounds, it could form a secure grip around objects of varying sizes and shapes. Now, that device has been commercialized – although incorporating higher-tech materials than balloons and coffee.
Created in a collaboration between the University of Chicago and Cornell University, the new version of the gripper is called the Versaball, and it's being produced by spin-off company Empire Robotics.
It utilizes the "jamming transition" phenomenon, in which granular objects remain loose and almost liquid ordinarily, but jam together to form a solid when vacuum-packed. It's the same process by which a package of vacuum-packed coffee feels rock-hard when sealed, but becomes soft and pliable once opened.
In the case of the Versaball, a granular material is packed into a rubber ball on the head of the device. That ball has a bean bag-like consistency when initially pressed onto an object, letting it conform to the shape of that item. A vacuum is then applied inside the ball, drawing out the air and causing it to "harden" around the object. The Versaball can then pick the item up (as long as it weighs no more than 20 lb/9 kg), move it, then release it simply by releasing the vacuum.
Although the first version will be aimed at industrial applications, it is hoped that subsequent models could find use in assisted living devices, prostheses, and military robots.
The team that designed the initial prototype apparently had no plans to commercialize the technology, but changed their minds after receiving inquiries from a number of companies. Empire is now taking orders for the device, which should begin shipping later this month. It can be seen in action in the video below.