Gecko-inspired robotic gripper to clear up space junk

Researchers have developed a pioneering robotic gripper that uses gecko-inspired sticky pads to clear up space debris.

Developed at Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and detailed today in the journal Science Robotics, the gripper has been tested both on the ground and on the International Space Station, demonstrating that it can successfully operate in zero-gravity environments.

With around 500,000 pieces of man-made debris littering orbit, there is a growing need to successfully clear much of it so that humanity can safely increase its operations in low-Earth orbit. Each piece of space junk is whizzing around at up to 17,500 miles per hour, meaning a collision with a satellite, spacecraft or even astronaut would be extremely expensive and potentially very dangerous.

However, many conventional junk removal methods don’t work particularly well. Suction cups rely on creating a difference in air pressure, meaning they don’t work in a vacuum; magnets only work on a limited number of materials and debris harpoons risk missing and knocking the objects off in unpredictable directions.

Sticky solutions, then are preferred, however most tape-like solutions fail because the chemicals they rely on to make them sticky can’t cope with the massive temperature changes objects in space are subjected to. Which is where the gecko-inspired gripper comes in.

The robotic gripper being tested on NASA’s low-gravity aircraft the Weightless Wonder. Image, video  and featured image courtesy of Jiang et al., Sci. Robot. 2, eaan4545 (2017)

“What we’ve developed is a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives,” said study senior author Mark Cutkosky, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford. “It’s an outgrowth of work we started about 10 years ago on climbing robots that used adhesives inspired by how geckos stick to walls.”

Geckos are able to scale vertical surfaces because they have microscopic flaps that create weak intermolecular forces between the feet and the wall’s surface, allowing them to grip on. The researchers have simply replicated these flaps, albeit on a larger scale; while each flap on a gecko’s foot is around 200 nanometers long, on the robotic gripper it is only 40 micrometers across.

However, it works in the same way, allowing an object to be gripped in a zero-g environment without needing to apply force.

“If I came in and tried to push a pressure-sensitive adhesive onto a floating object, it would drift away,” said study co-author Dr Elliot Hawkes, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Instead, I can touch the adhesive pads very gently to a floating object, squeeze the pads toward each other so that they’re locked and then I’m able to move the object around.”

A close-up of the prototype gripper. Image courtesy of Kurt Hickman/Stanford News Service

The gripper has already undergone extensive testing, including in JPL’s Robodome, which has a floor like a giant air hockey table that is designed to simulate a 2D zero-G environment.

“We had one robot chase the other, catch it and then pull it back toward where we wanted it to go,” said Hawkes. “I think that was definitely an eye-opener, to see how a relatively small patch of our adhesive could pull around a 300kg robot.”

Now it has been tested on the International Space Station, the next step is to test a version outside the space station, in the radiation-filled reality of space. Cutkosky also plans to commercialise the gecko-inspired adhesive here on Earth.

Adding stem cells to the brains of mice “slowed or reversed” ageing

Albert Einstein College of Medicine scientists “slowed or reversed” ageing in mice by injecting stem cells into their brains.

The study, published online in the journal Nature, saw the scientists implant stem cells into mice’s hypothalamus, which caused molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs) to be released.

The miRNA molecules were then extracted from the hypothalamic stem cells and injected into the cerebrospinal fluid of two groups of mice: middle-aged mice whose hypothalamic stem cells had been destroyed and normal middle-aged mice.

This treatment significantly slowed aging in both groups of animals as measured by tissue analysis and behavioural testing that involved assessing changes in the animals’ muscle endurance, coordination, social behaviour and cognitive ability.

“Our research shows that the number of hypothalamic neural stem cells naturally declines over the life of the animal, and this decline accelerates aging,” said senior author Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D., professor of molecular pharmacology at Einstein.

“But we also found that the effects of this loss are not irreversible. By replenishing these stem cells or the molecules they produce, it’s possible to slow and even reverse various aspects of aging throughout the body.”

To reach the conclusion that stem cells in the hypothalamus held the key to aging, the scientists first looked at the fate cells in the hypothalamus as healthy mice got older.

The number of hypothalamic stem cells began to diminish when the mice reached about 10 months, which is several months before the usual signs of aging start appearing. “By old age—about two years of age in mice—most of those cells were gone,” said Dr. Cai.

Images courtesy of the Mayo Clinic.

The researchers next wanted to learn whether this progressive loss of stem cells was actually causing aging and was not just associated with it.

To do this, the scientists observed what happened when they selectively disrupted the hypothalamic stem cells in middle-aged mice.

“This disruption greatly accelerated aging compared with control mice, and those animals with disrupted stem cells died earlier than normal,” said Dr. Cai.

Finally, to work out whther adding stem cells to the hypothalamus counteracted ageing, the scientists injected hypothalamic stem cells into the brains of middle-aged mice whose stem cells had been destroyed as well as into the brains of normal old mice.

In both groups of animals, the treatment slowed or reversed various measures of aging.

The scientists are now trying to identify the particular populations of microRNAs that are responsible for the anti-aging effects seen in mice, which is perhaps the first step toward slowing the aging process and successfully treating age-related diseases in humans.

Self-driving delivery cars coming to UK roads by 2018

A driverless vehicle designed to deliver goods to UK homes is set to take to the road next year after the successful conclusion of an equity crowdfunding campaign.

Developed by engineers at The University of Aberystwyth-based startup The Academy of Robotics, the vehicle, Kar-Go, is road-legal, and capable of driving on roads without any specific markings without human intervention.

Kar-Go has successfully raised £321,000 through Crowdcube – 107% of its goal – meaning the company now has the funds to build its first commercially ready vehicles. This amount will also, according to William Sachiti, Academy of Robotics founder and CEO, be matched by “one of the largest tech companies” in the world.

Images courtesy of Academy of Robotics

The Academy of Robotics has already built and tested a prototype version of Kar-Go, and is working with UK car manufacturer Pilgrim to produce the fully street-legal version.

The duo has already gained legal approval from the UK government’s Centre for Autonomous Vehicles, meaning the cars will be able to immediately operate on UK roads once built.

The aim of Kar-Go is to partner with suppliers of everyday consumer goods to significantly reduce the cost of deliveries, and the company’s goal in this area is ambitious: Sachiti believes Kar-Go could reduce delivery costs by as much as 98%.

Whether companies go for the offering remains to be seen, but the company says it is in early stage discussions with several of the largest fast-moving consumer goods companies in Europe, which would likely include the corporations behind some of the most recognisable brands found in UK supermarkets.

Introducing Kar-go Autonomous Delivery from Academy of Robotics on Vimeo.

While some will be sceptical, Sachiti is keen to drive the company to success, and already has an impressive track record in future-focused business development. He previously founded Clever Bins – the solar powered digital advertising bins found in many of the nation’s cities – and digital concierge service MyCityVenue – now part of SecretEscapes.

“As a CEO, it is one of my primary duties to make sure Kar-go remains a fantastic investment, this can only be achieved by our team producing spectacular results. We can’t wait to show the world what we produce,” he said.

“We have a stellar team who are excited to have begun working on what we believe will probably be the best autonomous delivery vehicle in the world. For instance, our multi-award winning lead vehicle designer is part of the World Championship winning Brabham Formula One design team, and also spent years as a Design Engineer at McLaren.”