Throw Your Jams In The Air: Morphing Robotic Hands Have Arrived

Empire Robotics' Versaball jamming manipulator grips objects—like this mason jar lid—by deforming around them.Empire Robotics

In a week full of noisy robotics news, from the machines rolling, balancing and climbing across the Las Vegas Convention Center, to the announcement of a $1B investment in IBM's Watson, it's only understandable that a major development in robot manipulation morphed right through the cracks. On Jan. 7th, Cornell University spinoff Empire Robotics released what appears to be the first commercially available jamming manipulator. That's an obtuse term for an ingeniously low-tech alternative to complex robotic hands. To oversimplify in the extreme, jamming manipulators function like a sand-filled balloon, though one whose consistency can be changed on command. So Empire Robotics' malleable Versaball can deform into and around an object it's mashed against, and then harden, transforming from a rubbery blob into a molded gripper.

It’s an approach that could address some of the biggest drawbacks of traditional, jointed manipulators, including sophisticated bionic hands. Instead of constantly courting mechanical disaster with an intricate series of motorized moving parts, Empire’s jamming manipulators use an air pump to lock or unlock a given grip. When the air is sucked out of the manipulator, the granular material—the researchers used dry coffee grounds until switching to an unspecified material relatively recently—is vacuum-packed and rigid. When air is released back into the chamber, the gripper releases.

Jamming manipulators of one kind or another have been presented by various roboticists in recently, including an MIT team whose demonstration requires very little imagination to achieve NSFW status. iRobot says that the brushless operation of its newest Roombas, with their rubbery, nub-covered cylinders, is based on the company's own jammable robot research, adapting the core principles of compliant gripping (though without the ability to soften or harden the grippers).

But with its first batch of Versaballs now shipping to customers, for roughly $4000 each, Empire Robotics has turned a promising experimental technology into a standalone product. The initial kits are going to clients in manufacturing and assembly, whose interests, says Empire Robotics co-founder and CTO John Amend, range from those looking for a manipulator that can handle a variety of part shapes, to customers setting up short production runs. “Some are saying ‘Your gripper is not the perfect gripper for me, but it can do the job, and I don’t have the resources to find the perfect gripper in time,’” says Amend.

It’s that “good enough” quality, however, that could land jamming manipulators in a more surprising place—on the business end of prosthetic arms. Amend hopes to secure funding this year to begin work on a limb-compatible version of the Versaball. “You wouldn’t put on one of these and go to dinner,” he says. “It’s for people who need one to do work tasks, and other daily life tasks, helping people who have lost upper limb capabilities get back to work.” A jamming manipulator might grip a faucet or doorknob, or even a hand tool, conforming to the shape of a wrench handle without having to run algorithms or process a user’s nerve signals. Ugly and inhuman as it would obviously be, a Versaball would do its job.

There’s a misleading quality, after all, to coverage of the most advanced prosthetics, implying that devices that cost $100,000 or more are even out of the lab, much less readily available to all but a fraction of amputees. Dour caveats about maintenance, insurance claims, and the need to apply electrodes to specific nerve clusters are clear buzzkills, and not suitable to dwell on in stories that inevitably struggle to discuss the potential for superhuman cyborgs. A prosthetic-attached Versaball doesn’t fulfill the fantasy of augmentation—a mushy, rubberized stump that can latch onto a car door handle will always be inferior to a human hand. And yet, something like the Versaball would be infinitely preferable to a non-gripping stump, or a myoelectric hand that’s out of financial reach.

Amend has no intentions of competing directly with bionic hand makers. But a cheap (by medical equipment standards), capable gripper could appeal to a broad customer base, and Empire Robotics appears to see prosthetics as the next market to pursue, after the industrial and manufacturing sector. Though it’s too early to talk device costs or development timetable, Amend did mention a possible feature for mechanics, contractors, or similar users, that puts the idea in perspective. “You could tether to a high-powered air supply when you get to work,” says Amend, taking the burden off of an internal battery or other mobile power source. That visual, of someone walking onto a job site and clipping into the nearest air compressor to power his or her morphing prosthetic stump through the day, might seem like a letdown, compared to the promise of neuro-controlled bionics. But the bird in the jammed manipulator is worth two clutched in an impossibly expensive cybernetic fist.