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This Beanbag on a Stick Will Change the Way You Think About Robotic Hands

Brian Heater
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

It’s common to think of robots as increasingly complex creatures – and for good reason, really. Like so many of mankind’s electronic creations, robotic hardware and artificial intelligence have grown increasingly sophisticated in recent years.

Sometimes, however, it pays to take a step back and reconsider the direction of things.

The Versaball is a pretty good (if not particularly cheap) example of the less-is-more approach to robotic gripping. Many robot-builders are attempting to mimic the mechanics of the human hand on their droids, down to the tiniest joint; the creators of the Versaball went the opposite direction. As Wired happily points out, the device is basically a beanbag. The cartoonish pad locks into the top of an object and then the air gets sucked out, freezing the granules inside into shape. The fluidity of the system makes it perfect for picking up small objects, and the result is, among other things, some cool YouTube videos of the system stacking Lego blocks and screwing in lightbulbs.

The ball was designed by Empire Robotics, a relatively recent entrant in the space formed in 2012 by Cornell grads for the specific purpose of bringing these sorts of grippers to market in a (relatively) inexpensive fashion. The team has been perfecting the mechanics behind the Versaball for a number of years now; earlier Versaball prototypes were filled with coffee grounds and could throw darts. Last summer, the company demonstrated how to make a similar arm at home with a balloon, coffee, a funnel and an air pump.   

The $4,000 Versaball isn’t going to be moving any industrial pipe any time soon. But the “jamming gripper” can handle objects weighing up to 20 pounds. 

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