As robots have a greater presence in our personal, public, and working environments, they must be equipped for a broad range of manipulation tasks and physical encounters. For many of these activities, such robots must be able to grasp a wide variety of everyday objects or be capable of physical interactions with humans or other robots. While there are robotic grippers ("end effectors") well-suited for specific tasks, progress in cooperative robotics has been limited by a lack of "universal" gripping systems that can handle a diverse set of objects. Universal gripping systems have the potential to dramatically improve robot performance and reduce costs by decreasing the number of end effectors that a robot needs for general purpose functionality. This National Robotics Initiative (NRI) project will address this critical need by creating new material architectures that enable universal robotic grasping. This will be accomplished by using materials that are capable of changing their mechanical properties such as stiffness and adhesion, and incorporating these materials into contact pads that the robot will use for gripping. This work will promote domestic economic growth and well-being by impacting multiple sectors in which cooperative robots will have an important role, including manufacturing, aerospace, agriculture, elderly care, and rehabilitation. This project will also contribute to educational outreach through middle/high school student workshops and science events that will inspire students to learn more about the role of materials in soft and human-friendly robotics.
The ultimate goal of this project is to realize a customizable robotic gripper that can operate in a broad range of contexts. To achieve this, the research team will pursue the following three interrelated research objectives. The first is to investigate the interplay between material stiffness, surface geometry, and the loading conditions that typically arise during robotic manipulation. This will include the development of adhesion-controlled robotic grasping approaches that exploit materials and structures with tunable stiffness and adhesion. The second objective is to engineer active contact pads that allow for high adhesive gripping forces and also high adhesion tunability. These pads will exploit a careful understanding of how material properties influence the distribution of mechanical stresses between contacting surfaces. The third objective is to integrate the soft contact pads into robotic end-effectors or the fingertips of a robotic hand. As part of this effort, the team will demonstrate enhancements in gripping performance and versatility through a comparative study involving objects with a broad range of shapes, sizes, weights, and mechanical properties.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.