Ras Labs has looked at the changing use of the gripper in the E-Commerce space and found that there is the need to pick up more fragile products. This market gap is driving the need for a softer while firm grasp gripper. Imagine handling food produce like picking up a raspberry. “Delicate fruit, like peaches, plums and raspberries, as well as vegetable like asparagus and fennel, will remain labor intensive for the foreseeable future. It is difficult to replace the human eye and hand,” from Taylor Farms, a supplier for Whole Foods, which was recently acquired by Amazon. “Amazon has been expanding and working on new areas beyond warehouse movements: it has, for example been working ways of using computer vision and robot arms to identify and pick out the most optimal fruits and vegetables out of boxes to put into grocery orders."
Ras Labs is working to incorporate our electroactive polymer (EAP) based actuators to drive pneumatic grippers used in agricultural and other areas where delicate touch is required. We are also designing our own gripper designs to maximize our EAPs’ actuation. The shape-morphing and sensing of Ras Labs’ EAPs lend their capabilities towards significantly advancing robots, particularly grippers, also known as end effectors. Fingered robot grippers could be enhanced by retrofitting the pressure sensing capability of Ras Labs’ EAPs as add-on fingertip pads. Tying these two EAP systems together will provide for intuitive human-like grippers with controlled movement, by the EAP shape-morphing regions provided by feedback from the closed sensing from the fingertip EAP pads. Human grasp is gentle yet firm at the same time. Ras Labs has the power to replicate human grasp. This has implications for human-like dexterity for both robotics grippers and prosthetic hands.
After working for the Johnson & Johnson’s Corporate Biomaterials Center and finishing her PhD in synthetic polymer chemistry from Virginia Tech, Ras Labs, LLC was formed in 2003. In the early days, revenue was mainly through chemical consulting and patent searches, which self-funded the research and development in electroactive polymers. In 2012, the pivotal patent on contractile EAPs was accepted by the USPTO and the book on EAP theory was published (L. Rasmussen, Editor, “Electroactivity in Polymeric Materials, Springer-Verlag © 2012, https://www.springer.com/us/book/9781461408772). In 2013, Ras Labs was selected as a MassChallenge global finalist and was awarded funding through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). Through the CASIS award, 32 samples of Ras Labs’ Synthetic Muscle™ EAPs were flown on the International Space Station for over a year (2015-2016) and compared very well to the 32 ground control EAP samples, demonstrating robustness to the broad-spectrum radiation encountered in space. NASA TV did an expose on Ras Labs’ R&D, goals and vision for robotic and prosthetics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9uj3OW_ld4). Ras Labs converted from a MA LLC to a DE C Corporation in 2017. This change was driven by the investment by Breakout Labs, which is part of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s Foundation. This has made our growing business easier to manage and more attractive to potential investors. Ras Labs was awarded the Breakout Labs funding in 2017. In 2017, Ras Labs received the NSF Phase 1 SBIR Award to investigate the feasibility of incorporating our Synthetic Muscle™ EAPs into prosthetic liners to provide for continual perfect fit throughout the day for amputees, with excellent results and another scientific breakthrough in our EAP technology.