How Many Robots Does it Take to Screw in a Light Bulb?

October 11, 2017      

How many robots does it take to screw in a light bulb? That is the very important question asked by engineers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD).

The answer: one Fetch robot from RBR50 company Fetch Robotics equipped with a custom soft robotic gripper. Watch the video at the top of this page to see the system in action.

The key here is the soft robotic gripper, which UCSD said is unique because “it brings together three different capabilities. It can twist objects; it can sense objects; and it can build models of the objects it’s manipulating.”

The gripper has three fingers that move when air pressure is applied. This gives the gripper more than one degree of freedom, so it can turn screwdrivers, screw in lightbulbs and even hold pieces of paper.

“We designed the device to mimic what happens when you reach into your pocket and feel for your keys,” said Michael T. Tolley, a roboticist at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering who is leading the project.

Fetch robot light bulb

The fingers on the soft robotic gripper are covered with a smart, sensing skin. The skin is made of silicone rubber, where sensors made of conducting carbon nanotubes are embedded. The data the sensors generate are transmitted to a control board, which puts the information together to create a 3D model of the object the gripper is manipulating.

The researchers said the next steps for the project include adding machine learning and artificial intelligence to data processing so the gripper can identify the objects it’s manipulating, rather than just model them. Researchers also are investigating using 3D printing to make the gripper’s fingers more durable.

The UCSD team presented the gripper at the 2017 International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS). Click here to read their paper “Custom Soft Robotic Gripper Sensor Skins for Haptic Object Visualization.”