Between soft technology and collaborative robots

In 2018 qbrobotics launched the qb Softhand Research, the first end-effector incorporating soft robotics thanks to the UR+ program sponsored by Universal Robot, one of the main producers of collaborative robots. To fully understand the scope of this new product, we need to take a step back.

Soft robotics applied to traditional cobot grippers

The qb Softhand Research arrived when the market was mature enough for the arrival of cobots, i.e. anthropomorphic collaborative robots. Designed with strict criteria for flexibility and safety, cobots operate in close contact with humans, even without any protective barriers, presenting new opportunities for technologies that guarantee high safety standards.

The evolution of collaborative robot technology brought to light certain shortcomings of  robot mechanics, such as the traditional robotic grippers, which had remained an accessory to be simply mounted and programmed. Here qbrobotics picked up on this market need and developed new and improved end-effector technology.

The idea was to design a gripping organ that is adaptable for many tasks, while guaranteeing maximum safety. As an alternative to traditional stiff grippers, qbrobotics presents an easy-to-use a soft device that is able to naturally adapt to objects present in the area, pushing the application of soft robotics outside the biomedical field in which they have been traditionally employed.

The qb SoftHand Research and the first synergy of the hand

The qb SoftHand Research robotic hand was created from experience gleans in the realm of research and development in prostheses. The hand is comprised of a single motor that acts on a tendon that opens and closes the five fingers replicating the first synergy of the hand, that is, the movement a baby makes when it grips the finger of its mother. This simple yet difficult gesture constitutes more than 60% of the movements of the human hand. This principle together with soft materials and elastic ligaments makes up the gripping instrument that is adaptable to any object to be grasped.

 

Trade fairs, awards and a demo with Universal Robot

In the same year, qb Softhand Research was included on the site of Universal Robot for distribution over their international network. Media attention and a rise in sales came quickly after qbrobotics’ participation in the 2018 Automatica Fair in Munich with a stand in the Universal Robot pavilion and at various German distributors, establishing the presence of qbrobotics on the market, R&D departments and international research centers.

The new hand was presented at other events and fairs such as the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) in Madrid and Japan Robot Week 2018. In 2019 the hand went on to participate in the most important international robotics conference, International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in Montreal, Canada where qbrobotics exhibited its products as well as held a demo of the qb SoftHand Research integrated with Franka Emika’s Panda robot, launching the newly minted compatibility between Franka and qbrobotics.

In parallel, qbrobotics continued to participate in other research projects, such as the H2020 European project THING (subTerranean Haptic INvestiGator) as partner where the objective was to improve the perceptive capacity of platforms with highly mobile legs through touch and active exploration. Among its various tasks, the company worked mostly on the realization of an adaptive foot and ankle prototype using soft technology for the robot quadruped ANYmal.

Between fairs, events and projects, qbrobotics received some accolades, such as the Premio Innovazione Toscana, or the Tuscan Reward for Innovation, ranking first in the category for innovative start-up companies. The motivation behind the reward was for the high level of technology and innovation of qbrobotics’ products, having contributed to the growth of the Tuscan economy through the diffusion of light robotics. For the company, the road towards innovation and industrial application of soft robotics was all set.

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