Text Size

NASA Goddard Technology Wins 2006 R&D 100 Award
R&D Magazine’s annual R&D 100 award recognizes the top 100 most innovative and technologically significant new products on the market. Called the “’Oscars of invention’ by the Chicago Tribune, the R&D 100 awards are awarded to technologies with "demonstrable technological significance compared with competing products and technologies."

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s conformal robotic gripper does just that and as a result has won a spot as one of the top 100 most unique, innovative, and noteworthy technologies for 2006.

The technology is a unique gripping mechanism that has the potential to revolutionize robotics by eliminating the need for specialized end effectors and grippers. End effectors are typically designed for very specific tasks and therefore tend to be limited in the range of objects they can accommodate. The gripper’s innovative design uses arrays of pins that gently conform to any object’s shape then lock into position for an extremely secure, yet gentle hold­even against significant external force or torque. This enables the conformal gripper to grasp and manipulate objects of varying size and shape, securely holding an object’s position for repair, machining, or assembly.

“It is a true honor to have this technology recognized by R&D, and I appreciate the efforts of everyone who supported and assisted in its development.” said Inventor John Vranish, retired emeritus. Mr. Vranish also stated that continual refinements will be made to simplify operation, lower mass, and lower manufacturing costs for the gripper technology.

The conformal gripper was originally designed for use in NASA’s lunar robotics missions. By using this new gripper, spacecraft carrying robots to the Moon, Mars, or to repair the Hubble Space Telescope will no longer require multiple end effectors. The conformal gripper will be the only end effector needed, drastically cutting down on the robot's mass and making space robotic activities safer and more capable.

In addition to the space industry, the gripper has applications in manufacturing and other industries that rely on robots to use tools and manipulate objects. This conformal gripper will enable superior, affordable, and more productive small batch manufacturing, which is the production of fifty or one hundred items. Typically, manufacturing small quantities means automation is not possible and the manufacturing of these parts must involve major human participation, which increases costs. The conformal gripper’s agility and dexterity enable it to use simple tools with superior results, making it possible to automate tasks for small batch manufacturing without the high cost of custom end effectors.

On the surgical front, robots are assisting doctors in delicate surgery that yields more accuracy with less cutting and speedier recovery times. Precision, miniature conformal grippers can secure and operate simple tools with a sense of location, touch, and feel comparable to a human hand and in some respects superior.

Other potential uses are in search and recovery activities in inhospitable environments, such as rescue missions where it is unsafe for humans to move about or bomb detection and disposal.

“We are extremely pleased that Mr. Vranish’s conformal robotic gripper technology was selected for this award, said Nona Cheeks, chief of Goddard’s Office of Technology Transfer. “His innovative ideas and tremendous dedication to continually improving the technology will undoubtedly revolutionize robotics in all fields.”

About the awards

The first R&D 100 Awards were awarded in 1963. Many entries over the years have become household names, including Polacolor film (1963), the flashcube (1965), the automated teller machine (1973), the halogen lamp (1974), the fax machine (1975), the liquid crystal display (1980), the printer (1986), the Kodak Photo CD (1991), the Nicoderm antismoking patch (1992), Taxol anticancer drug (1993), lab on a chip (1996), and HDTV (1998).

One hundred winners that exemplify the best new technologies are chosen from an international pool of contestants from universities, private corporations, and government labs.

Winners of the 2006 R&D 100 Awards appear in this month's issue of R&D.

Ed Campion / Darryl Mitchell
Goddard Space Flight Center