Feb.22, 2013

Animal-inspired robots are often being created to improve the way emergency response teams react to the operations while reducing human risk at dangerous on-site locations. Now, inspired by the way octopus grasp objects, the Army is developing soft-bodied, octopus-esque robots for search and rescue.

(Photo by Doug Lafon, ARL photographer)

Octopuses have dozens to hundreds of flexible suckers on each of their arms. These handy cups can generate substantial amounts of force for grabbing things.

For more than five decades researchers have been trying to create robots with such ability.
A traditional suction grasper uses one vacuum pump as a central suction source, which limits the effectiveness of the technology for grasping if some cups on the grasper do not attach to a given object, creating leak points where air enters at the point of engagement.

Researchers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center work together with the University of Maryland to create individually activated robotic suckers.

The team modified the technology so a robot could grasp a large range of items by maximizing the strength of the suction. The self-sealing suction cup features a plug that sits nominally in the suction inlet. When the source pump is turned on, the plug of any cup not in contact with an object gets sucked in, sealing itself. This increases the pressure differential and strengthens the suction capability of the cups that are engaged on an object. The design also uses passive reaction forces that cause the cup to activate and open when the lip contacts an object, breaking the seal to initiate suction.

To get the combination of strength and precision, the researchers have been building their prototypes on a multi-material 3D printer, using rigid materials like nylon and a liquid photo polymer that hardens when blasted with ultraviolet light.

(ECBC engineering technician Brad Ruprecht used a multi-material 3D printer to produce suction cup prototypes. | Photo by Doug Lafon, ARL photographer)

"With 3D printing, you're getting a working ensemble of suction cups right off of the machine with the elastomeric and rigid materials together", said Brad Ruprecht from the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.

The self-sealing suction cup ranges anywhere in size from the palm of a hand to the point of a fingertip. A little test shows that four fingertip cups can just pick up a bottle of wine.

(Photo by Doug Lafon, ARL photographer)

The researchers hope that the suckers could work even better underwater. The extra pressure from the depths of the sea gives more force to utilize for the effectiveness of the cups.

Under-water prototypes will need to use different materials. "If you were to go underwater with it, you probably wouldn't use the same materials. They tend to absorb moisture and degrade faster. You'd want something that is going to hold up to salt water like a thermal plastic." Ruprecht said.

With 3D printing researchers could produce twenty prototypes of varying sizes and shapes within twenty minutes. It allows the researchers to continue with testing out different printed prototypes to find out which ones truly suck.

Though the 3D printer is limited to the materials it was designed to print, Ruprecht said the technology serves the purpose of giving a researcher adequate time to gather large amounts of data from the prototypes.

In the future these robots could be sent into dangerous environments, for example a Fukushima-type disaster, to perform some sort of manipulation activity like closing a valve, recovering an object or operating a tool in a contaminated area.

 

 

 

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