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This Robot Took on Beer-Pong Masters, and Slayed

Empire Robotics’ VERSABall Gripper might have started life as a balloon, but flash forward five years and the programmable picker-upper has mastered a new party supply: the red Solo cup. Yes, this robot is a beer-pong master.

The device relies on “jamming phase transition,” the ability to force loose objects into a solid-like state using air pressure, to form a secure grip. Think about what happens when you vacuum-pack coffee: remove the air, and the grounds form a rock-hard “solid.” Open the seal, and they return to being soft and pliable. This is exactly what’s happening in the bot’s business end, only instead of coffee, the green ball is filled with sand.

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“When air is pumped into the ball, the ball softens,” explains the team. “This allows it to form around whatever object it needs to pick up. Pulling air out of the ball jams the sand-like material together, causing the ball to harden around the object.” When the vacuum is released, so is whatever the robot was holding. But by adding a bit of additional air pressure, the object can be thrown from the grip with extreme precision. And it’s strong, to boot. The combination of sand and rubber is able to suspend anything 20 pounds (9 kg) or under.

Empire robotics took their ball-sinking “throw-bot” to CES 2015, where it took on some of the world’s beer pong champions, and won. While that might not seem particularly important, ping pong balls provide good training for tech that needs to handle delicate materials.

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The team hopes to see VERSABall technology in a wide variety of applications in the coming years. For example, imagine a prosthesis that could form to its wearer without putting additional strain on the skin, or a military robot that could handle and remove volatile substances without rupturing them, or an assisted living device that could divvy out medications. “We’re creating a single, inexpensive tool that can handle different needs,” they say. The tech could spell competition for Fiesto’s crazy chameleon-tongue gripper, but in the meantime, it’s got one hell of a party trick.

Check out more images of the VERSABall in the gallery below!

IMAGES: Empire Robotics

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