Soft Robotics, a DARPA funded technology company in Cambridge USA have been developing a specialised robotic hand inspired by the free movement and dexterity of octopus tentacles. The robotic hand is capable of manipulating and packing the most touch perishable consumables with absolute accuracy.
Last week, the innovative start up announced a partnership with Heinzen manufacturing international – a California based fresh produce handling company that supplies into global wholesalers. The partnership will see Heinzen extend their service offering to include the robotic gripper along with an eclectic array of conveyor systems aimed at increasing the efficiency of both their own and their customers operational efficiency.
“They’re basically going to be like the grasp of the human hand,” said Joshua Lessing, the founder and director of R&D at Soft Robotics.
The current market for robotic pickers has broadened its horizons in the past few months, moving away from the clunky and hard to control metal fingered robotic hands to pneumatic cushioned designs. “Metal fingers require a huge amount of code to merely get near an object, then must adjust their grip so that it’s not too hard, and not too soft”.
Soft Robotics uses a unique design – tentacles. Their careful choice of materials from metal to elastic polymer has been the foundations of their revolutionary approach. And while competitor robots must know the exact size, shape and weight of an object to move it, the soft robotic hand uses the same programming to grab anything in its path, the grippers simply inflate and deflate accordingly – allowing the company to forge fancy cameras and sensing technology for cheaper gear.
Initial goals and investment were orientated towards making soft surgical tools that were capable of maneuvering delicate tissue and organs, in lieu of steel tools. “DARPA wanted us to work on combat trauma,” Lessing said. However as the technology matured so did the range of possible applications. The cross road came about when CEO Carl Vause wandered into the lab with a question: “Could the robotic grippers pick a piece of produce, like a strawberry or a tomato?” Vause made the case that the produce industry was a vast market that robotics didn’t yet serve.
The response Lessing told Vause: “If you can move a spleen, you can pick a tomato.” Indicating the shift in focus from medical assistance to produce handler.
The fact that the robotic tentacles can be removed and steralised is a massive selling point to wholesalers – contamination being a major factor that is driving the produce manufacturers to automate their picking lines. For example, as fruit is cleaned and cut, it falls to a person to pack each piece. “If you look at a party tray with five components, it’s going down the assembly line touched by 20 people,” Heinzen chief executive Rudi Groppe said.
As Robotic collaboration comes to the forefront of the technology market a swath of industries are looking towards innovative start-ups geared to make the transition smoother toward a safer more versatile symbiotic environment.
For more information on the progress of this technology please visit Soft Robotics Website.
Or watch the demo video.