As you probably noticed, we talk about robots around here fairly often, but it’s rare that we present the world with a robot/robotic tool that you can actually go out and purchase. Versaball, created by Empire Robotics and not to be confused with the stability ball that comes up when you Google "versaball," is scheduled to begin shipping later this month.
At this point, I presume at least half of you are ready to purchase a Versaball, while the other half is wondering what in the heck it is. Well, you know how Bender from Futurama is a robot made for bending stuff? Versaball is a robot hand made for gripping stuff. This isn’t the take-over-the-world-type robot or even the fetch-me-a-drink-type robot: this one’s made for industrial usage.
Versaball is based on a project from 2010 that created a robotic gripper using a balloon filled with coffee grounds. By pushing the coffee-filled balloon down on an object, it would create a grip on objects across all varieties of size and shape thanks to the jamming transition phenomenon as its core. That phenomenon is what happens when you take a bag of loose coffee grounds and suck all the air out. Suddenly, you have a solid, heavy mass. Let air back in, and it's softer than dirt.
Well, that device has been commercialized, though it (sadly) no longer uses coffee beans or balloons. Instead, researchers at the University of Chicago and Cornell University have created a spin-off that uses the same jamming transition phenomenon as its core. So Versaball is basically a ball stuffed with a granular material: push it onto an object, like a stick or a girder, and it will fall all around the object like a bag of sand would. But then, a vacuum sucks all the air from the rubber head, forming a vice-like grip around the object. Bam, it can now pick up any object that weighs less than 20 pounds and move it anywhere.
At present, it’s for industrial use, but it could be great for those with prosthetic needs. There could even be military applications in transportation unstable explosives or what have you. Take a peek at the hypnotic video below of the Versaball picking up things and then dropping them again. I swear, you can watch this thing for hours.