DIY Universal Robot Gripper

UPDATE: See the new version of the universal gripper with more pictures and new videos.

iRobot and the University of Chicago released a video of their universal robotic gripper. It is basically a gripper that can conform to the shape of seemingly every object. The video below illustrates its capabilities.

[youtube 0d4f8fEysf8]

The gripper uses the properties of granular materials to become rigid or fluid by applying pressure constraints. Basically, unhealthy the flexible blue sphere seen in the video is filled with a granular material (ground coffee) and can become solid when a vacuum is applied.

Since this is a rather simple principle, cure I thought I could quickly do one for myself.


  • A party balloon (silver in my case)
  • A piece of plastic tubing (I used a hose fitting I had lying around)
  • A piece of cloth
  • Ground coffee (I use some very old coffee I found in my freezer)
  • A rubber band.
  • Functional lungs (unfortunately, my vacuum pump is dead)

How to do it

  1. Fill the balloon with coffee (you might need to put it in a  vacuum chamber in order to be able to expand the balloon and thus stuff more coffee in it).
  2. Cover one end of the plastic tubing with the piece of cloth and hold it together with the rubber band. This will be used an air-permeable filter that will keep the coffee inside the balloon and allow air to circulate.
  3. Insert the plastic tube in the balloon (so the filter is inside the balloon).

Now, you can connect the contraption to a vacuum pump in order to create a vacuum. you can also use your mouth and lungs in order to suck the air out. I had to resort to the latter method since my vacuum pump is broken :'(.  I am trying to source a cheap vacuum pump in order to improve the project and make it into a real robotic gripper. Any suggestions are welcome!

The Result

Bellow, you can see my gripper gripping many objects and even pouring water as the original one does. You can also see me operate the gripper by sucking the air out of the balloon.

[youtube q-gHLYIWrrs]

The Future

As soon as I secure a nice vacuum pump, I will make a second version of the gripper using better materials. Again, any suggestions regarding the pump are welcome.

UPDATE: I found a pump thank to teh Youtube Comments! See the 2.0 version of the gripper.

11 thoughts on “DIY Universal Robot Gripper

  1. A vacuum pump used for brake assist in turbocharged cars should be OK for you. You would have to attach some electric motor to it. Next some tank to store vacuum and two electric valves for suction and release. Add two analog vacuum sensors (one for vac storage and control the pump, one to control power of your gripper) and you’ll have a perfect gripper controller. 🙂

    Regards, /E.

  2. If you want a brew-it-yourself vacuum source, you could probably use a syringe to draw the air out. Attach the plunger to a continuous rotation servo motor with threaded rod and a threaded sleeve. Simple, inexpensive, lightweight, and very low power draw, though it would be slower than a pump/reservoir system. Add an air pressure sensor and you would have very fine control over the vacuum pressure.


  3. For something a bit unusual, can try finding a used breast pump. They can provide quite a bit of suction and you can find them cheap.

  4. Brett… you beat me to it. I came on here to suggest the syringe method. You can get some pretty good vacuum with them. I recommend the large 50ml syringes.

    Peter… the breast pumps can do decent pressure, but they cut off at a certain point (safety feature). They are strong enough to pump liquids though. We’ve used them in drink making barbots at NYC Resistor.

  5. hey you should try with one of the old Mercedes Benz locking system pumps. i guess you could get one at a local junkyard and they are already electric.also i think the produce both pressure and vacuum.
    hope it helps!

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