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THE GRIP WIHOUT TOUCH-“THE ULTRASONIC GRIPPER” _A NEW ERA OF ROBOTICS

If movies have taught us anything, it’s that robots will eventually be part of the society, hopefully in the likeness of cuddlesome Baymax and not a murderous robot sent from the future by an AI. But in Baymax’s case, while he can provide medical and psychological care, it will be hard to handle tiny objects with those plushy hands. So to make it easier for robots to perform intricate tasks involving minuscule objects, researchers from ETH Zurich have created a grip that hold objects with sound.The latest prototype from the ‘NO-Touch Robotics’ project is that for the hand of a robot that utilizes acoustic levitation to grab hold of an object. Acoustic levitation is a method that utilizes the pressure developed by sound waves to suspend matter in a medium, like air.

Researchers want to utilize this technology to lift and manipulate small objects without touching them. The acoustic grip or no-touch grip ensures that fragile objects are not damaged at all and provide a higher level of accuracy compared to conventional grips. The technology is not new and has been used for more than 80 years in fields like space exploration.

NON-CONTACT HANDLING USING HIGH-INTENSITY ULTRASONICS

Increasing requirements placed on the handling of parts in microsystem technology and semiconductor fabrication necessitate the development of new innovative approaches for handling and transporting miniaturized, fragile and surface-sensitive components. This is where the technology of high-intensity ultrasonics offers itself as a suitable approach for non-contact handling of parts and substrates. While microparts can be positioned and manipulated within a standing wave pattern, the application of the principle of near field levitation makes it possible to design non-tactile grippers and transfer systems as methods particularly suitable to ensure the material flow in microsystem and semiconductor manufacturing and wafer processing. The piezoelectric sound transducers used in this process, apart from the non-contact application of forces, are designed to monitor these forces by measuring the power input of the vibrators.

JEDI BOT

Although a robotic arm that levitates objects sounds incredibly complex, it was actually created by a doctoral fellowship student. Marcel Schuck and a team of researchers from ETH Zurich have been working on the project for some time.

It’s worth noting that they didn’t come up with the idea of acoustic levitation. However, until now, it was mainly used as more of a magic trick than as a technology with practical applications. That’s what Schuck and his team want to change.

They arranged an array of minuscule speakers around the end of a robotic arm. Each of these emits highly-controlled frequencies at specific volumes. In turn, these sounds produce a pressure wave that can suspend small objects in midair. The technology also allows the team to move items around, rotate them, and flip them without ever making physical contact with the robot.

One problem that complicates the matter is that every item requires slightly different frequencies to “hold” it in place. To solve this, Schuck and his team also built accompanying software that allows them to adjust the projection characteristics of the arm’s speakers as needed. With it, they can easily experiment with what works for different objects.

RESEARCHES AND POTENTIAL APPLICATIONS

Researchers at ETH Zürich have developed an ultrasonic gripper that can pick up and manipulate small objects without even touching them, thanks to acoustic levitation. In other words, it uses ultrasonic waves to enable robots to handle fragile items, like precision watch parts. Currently, the prototype consists of a lab-bench robotic arm and a pair of 3D-printed semi-spheres.

POTENTIAL APPLICATIONS

  • In the production of small electronics and certain crucial components, keeping things free of contamination is key.
  • The smallest of touches can impart devastating static or dirt onto a raw piece that renders it useless. Due to this, robotic grippers don’t just need high dexterity.
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