Harvest Moon Automation is developing a two phase gripper that is extremely compliant and flexible when it engages an object and then becomes rigid allowing it to pull or rotate the object. When it engages the object the gripper forms itself to the object and gently pushes away other obstructions such as wires and tubes. After it engages the object, it enters the second phase, whereby it becomes rigid. This allows the gripper to pull or rotate the object.
NASA will depend upon intravehicular activity robots (IVA) robots such as the NASA Astrobee and Robonaut 2 to perform payload operations and spacecraft caretaking on Gateway, the orbiting facility that will be positioned near the moon. Fine grasping tasks such as plugging and unplugging electrical and fluid connectors will be difficult for current state of the art grippers. The connectors will be nestled among other connectors, wires and tubes. The HMA adaptive robotic gripper has narrow and flexible fingers that allow it to be easily maneuvered around obstacles to the connector. After grabbing the connector the fingers will stiffen so that they have a rigid hold on the connector. The two phase gripper can be easily maneuvered to the connector in its flexible phase and then wrap around the connector and become rigid in its second phase allowing the robot to rotate and push/pull the connector into position.
The unique advantages of the HMA adaptive gripper is that it is a simple design that is easy to position and activate. Unlike a precision gripper with rigid fingers that move through a defined profile, the adaptive gripper has very flexible fingers that do not move through a defined profile. When actuated the flexible fingers conform to the profile of the object that it is gripping. Precise positioning of the adaptive gripper relative to the connector is not required. The adaptive gripper has the dual advantages of having flexible fingers that become very rigid when grabbing and moving the object.
NASA applications include IVA robots using the adaptive gripper for fine grasping tasks during general maintenance, in particular the plug/unplug of electrical and fluid connectors. The gripper will also allow IVA robots to perform payload operations and spacecraft caretaking. This includes housekeeping, stowage, surface sample aggregation, science measurements and operations. Beyond Gateway these similar applications are needed on robots in future lunar and planetary surface activity.
The adaptive gripper has many potential applications in the commercial markets. Currently, the agricultural industry is an area very interested in this technology with focus on picking strawberries. Nuclear power plant maintenance with its hazardous environment is another industry. The e-commerce is growing dramatically and has interest in automated pickers for order fulfillment.