NC State Develops Ultra-Precise Robotic Gripper with Prosthetic Potential

In a breakthrough that could revolutionize the world of robotics, a team of researchers from North Carolina State University has developed a highly versatile and efficient robotic gripper. The innovative device boasts an impressive combination of strength, gentleness, precision, and dexterity, making it capable of handling objects from a delicate drop of water to a hefty 14.1-pound weight.

The gripper’s design showcases an impressive balance of these attributes, making it ideal for various applications, including manufacturing and robotic prosthetics. The team even integrated the device with technology that uses electrical signals produced by forearm muscles to control the gripper, demonstrating its potential in the field of prosthetics.

Jie Yin, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University, and the study’s corresponding author, explained the challenges in creating such a versatile device. “Developing a single, soft gripper that can handle ultrasoft, ultrathin, and heavy objects is challenging due to tradeoffs between strength, precision, and gentleness. Our design achieves an excellent balance of these characteristics,” he said.

The new gripper’s design is an evolution of an earlier generation of flexible, robotic grippers inspired by kirigami – an art form that involves cutting and folding two-dimensional materials to create three-dimensional shapes. The team made significant improvements in the fundamental structure and trajectory of the grippers, enhancing their efficiency and versatility.

The device’s ability to distribute force throughout its structure is the key to its impressive strength and gentleness. “Our grippers weigh 0.4 grams and can lift up to 6.4 kilograms. That’s a payload-to-weight ratio of about 16,000. That is 2.5 times higher than the previous record for payload-to-weight ratio, which was 6,400,” Yin elaborated.

The gripper’s design-driven performance allows for flexibility in material choice, opening doors for environmentally friendly options like biodegradable materials. This feature could be particularly useful in handling food or biomedical materials where temporary usage is required.

The team also demonstrated the gripper’s potential in handling sharp medical waste such as needles, emphasizing its safety and efficiency. Integration with a myoelectric prosthetic hand further showcased its potential in prosthetics, enhancing functionality for tasks that existing prosthetic devices find challenging.

Helen Huang, professor in the joint biomedical engineering department at NC State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explained that while the new gripper cannot replace all functions of existing prosthetic hands, it could supplement those functions without needing to replace or augment existing motors used in robotic prosthetics.

In their proof-of-concept testing, the researchers demonstrated that the kirigami grippers could turn book pages and pluck grapes off a vine when used with the myoelectric prosthesis. This shows promise for applications in fields as diverse as food processing, pharmaceuticals, electronics manufacturing, and even programming languages and coding where precision is paramount.

“We believe the gripper design has potential applications in fields ranging from robotic prosthetics and food processing to pharmaceutical and electronics manufacturing,” Yin concluded. “We are looking forward to working with industry partners to find ways to put the technology to use.”

This development is a significant leap forward in robotics and automation technology, with implications for industries ranging from electronics to healthcare. As we continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with robotics and computers, innovations like this versatile robotic gripper bring us one step closer to a future where machines can perform tasks with human-like dexterity and precision.