RE2 hits technical milestone with STARFISH robotic gripper

The prototype of the STARFISH underwater gripper developed by RE2. | Source: Sarcos

RE2 Robotics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sarcos Technology and Robotics Corporation, announced that it reached a technical milestone on its Strong Tactile mARitime hand for Feeling, Inspecting, Sensing and Handling (STARFISH). The company has successfully assembled and lab tested a complete gripper that can grasp and hold a variety of objects. 

STARFISH is an underwater end-of-arm tooling that is equipped with tactile feedback. The gripper will be deployed with the U.S. Navy for mine countermeasures and explosive ordnance dispose (EOD). The project is being funding through the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR). 

“The way they handle EOD’s now is they typically send a diver down in the water to render a threat safe. You can think about the USS Cole, for example,” Jorgen Pedersen, Sarcos COO and former RE2 CEO, said. “That would be an example where if they had suspected that there would be a threat there, they would send a diver down to go try to take care of that. Now we have the ability to replicate that diver capability in robotic form.” 

The STARFISH prototype uses three tactile-sensing fingers to grip small and larger objects. It’s even able to perform fine motor skills like squeezing tweezers. The grippers fingers conform to the shape of the objects its holding, which allows it to handle objects on contact.

The prototype is durable enough to withstand turbulent underwater conditions, like ocean swells and other hazards. Its fingers are covered in a multimodal tactile sensor skin that allows them to feel normal and shear forces.

Sarcos developed this technology with Dr. Veronica Santos, the director of the Biomechatronics Laboratory at UCLA, and Dr. Jonathan Posner, a professor of mechanical engineering and chemical engineering at the University of Washington.

“[The skin] provides different forms of feedback—pressure, temperature, vibration—so that the same type of sensing that you have as a human you’re getting now at the end of the robot’s fingertip,” Pedersen said. 

The gripper can be teleoperated and can perform some autonomous functions with a human always in the loop to make sure things are running smoothly. 

The RE2 Sapien Sea Class is a dual arm system designed for deep ocean use. | Source: RE2 Robotics

In the next phase of the project, the STARFISH gripper will be attached to Sapien Sea Class underwater arms mounted onto an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV). While the technology is being developed for use in the Navy, according to Pedersen the company hopes to apply it to more applications in the future.  

“What’s cool about this technology is it’s foundational,” Pedersen said. “This same technology that works underwater can work on land. So, it’s not limited to subsea, we just happened to pick the hardest environment to work in. So my confidence in extending this into a terrestrial application is very high.”

RE2 was acquired by Sarcos in March 2022 for $100 million. The deal consists of $30 million in cash and $70 million of Sarcos common stock, and is expected to close in the second quarter of 2022.

“It was a perfect strategic fit form both sides. Both companies had essentially the same mission,” Pedersen said. “We’re improving worker safety and productivity through robotics. So there was no change in the goal by bringing these two companies together.” 

The deal nearly doubles Sarcos’ engineering team and adds Pittsburgh, one of the world’s leading robotics clusters, as a second location. RE2 will eventually be rolled up into the Sarcos brand but will remain in Pittsburgh.

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