Under Development: A Robot That Actually Levitates Objects


It’s early days, but a Swiss scientist is developing a robot gripper that can hold small objects without touching them.

Marcel Schuck, a 31-year-old post-doctoral student on a fellowship at the Swiss university ETH Zurich, uses ultrasound waves to suspend an object that can then be manipulated.

It’s called “acoustic levitation” and it’s the principle behind “no-touch robotics,” an early version which was used in NASA’s space program.

Under the hood

Schuck’s invention, detailed on the university’s web pageOpens a new window , consists of the robot gripper and attached software.

Two  headphone-like domes facing each other are attached to the gripper, which is shaped like a “7.” The domes, each created with a 3D printer, contain tiny loudspeakers that emit the ultrasound waves.  Between the domes hovers a small object.

The university’s web page explains:  “Ultrasound waves generate a pressure field that humans cannot see or hear. Pressure points are created as the acoustic waves overlay each other, and small objects can be trapped within these points. As a result, they seem to float freely in the air – in an acoustic trap.”

The software adjusts the gripper to the shape of the object to be lifted, and Schuck then commands the robot arm to move the object.

Practical uses

Like many curious and interesting inventions, the science behind acoustic levitation came first and the applications came afterwards. The technique has been known about for 80 years, and it was used during a 1985 experiment in space by a NASA astronautOpens a new window . But today the search is on for other possible applications.

As industries embrace robotics, many operations are performed by robotic gripper arms. When dealing with small and fragile objects, high-precision rubber-type grippers are used to avoid damaging the objects.

However, while they protect the object, they become contaminated over time, like a rubber eraser. And each precision movement demands a different precision gripper.

So, the no-touch robotic gripper has potential. Not only could it remove the problem of contamination, it could also replace the need for several grippers because the gripper arm doesn’t need to be precise.

“The exact positioning is determined by the acoustic waves controlled by the software,” Schuck explains.

Already, using the existing technology Schuck and his collaborators can move various small objects through space.

Precision industries

Schuck now wants to use funding from his fellowship to explore possible applications.

In watch-making, a renowned Swiss specialty, the artisan needs to handle expensive, high-precision components such as toothed gearwheels. A fine layer of lubricant coats the gearwheels,  so touching them could damage the lubricant.

As well as watchmaking, the minute world of microelectronics could also be interested in the innovation.

Schuck is working on a development kit for potential clients containing a robot gripper, control software and instructions. He’s recruiting partners for further development of the acoustic gripper.

The future beckons. Schuck plans to establish a start-up company next year, which means we probably won’t have to wait long for a new branch of robotics to be born. No-touch robotics could mean the 80-year-old concept of acoustic levitation has finally caught on.