Empire Robotics shows its hands … and they’re fingerless

Via Empire Robotics
Via Empire Robotics

The candidate for best robotic hand looks like a beanbag and claims to grip anything.

A Boston builder of robot hands, Empire Robotics, is showing its first commercial grippers today: the enchanting and entirely fingerless VersaBall. Interestingly, this first demonstration is in partnership with Universal Robots, who happens to be local bot maker Rethink Robotics’ competitor.

Robotics companies and researchers have already found ways to move robots around, not just in factories, but around your house too. But as robots begin to do more, they’re still trying to solve the problem of dexterity—how do you build a robotic hand that can hold and move objects of entirely different shapes, sizes, and textures?

The early version of VersaBall, built at Cornell. Credit:  John Amend

The early version of VersaBall, built at Cornell. Credit: John Amend

Hod Lipson, a robotics researcher at Cornell University, and then-student John Amend — now CTO of Empire Robotics in Boston — proposed a distinctly out of the box approach. Getting rid of the fingers on the robot, they demonstrated a shape-shifting gripper made out of party balloons and coffee beans. In theory it could grab and hold virtually anything.

That was five years ago. The VersaBall, now grown up, has its insides re-engineered for hardy, repetitive work.

The squish gripper can wrap itself around a range of shapes. When the air is sucked out, it firms up around it. That was the principle behind the coffee-bean-balloon prototype, and behind the industrial gripper too.

“We are the first people to commercialize technology like this,” Amend said. He said versatility is one of Empire Robotics’ strengths—any object can be moved around without complex programming directed at individual digits.

Collaboration is the other. Amend says that the choice to partner with Universal was an indication of the direction Empire hopes to take in the future, building robots that can work with humans by their side. “It’s a good fit,” Amend says.

The first public demonstration of Empire’s VersaBall is at the commercial product at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago Wednesday. Empire has been supplying labs and research departments at companies with test kits, but now has plans to ship their first products in the fall. While Universal is a first demo partner, Amend will sell the VersaBall to any system that will fit.

The current version of the VersaBall is outfitted for industrial applications. But food production is another market that they hope to expand into next. It’s another snug fit because fruit and vegetables aren’t precisely shaped, and tend to be soft. According to Amend, “No two apples are the same.”

According to Bloomberg, the market for dextrous robots extends to $10 billion.

Ahead of their first demonstration, Amend said he his fingers crossed for a smooth launch. That’s a good thing, because the VersaBall doesn’t have any.

Read more: Startup Empire Robotics wants to help robots get a better grip

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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