Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Robotic Tentacles To Grab Fragile Objects

By Jay Soni

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Researchers have developed robotic grippers using hollow rubber tubes that curl to grab objects when pressurized.

Soft gripper grasps succulent. Credit: Harvard Microrobotics Lab/Harvard SEAS

Every tech enthusiast has once in their life has come across Iron Man’s robot assistant. The cobot is seen assisting and grabbing equipment for the famous character throughout the storyline. One might have also come across the claw game in an arcade which at a certain point became irritating. Now, imagine grabbing something delicate and precious object with that gripper.

Researchers at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), inspired from nature, have created a new type of soft, robotic gripper that employs a network of thin tentacles to entangle and grab objects, similar to how jellyfish collect their prey. Individual filaments, or tentacles, are not very strong on their own. However, when used as a group, the filaments can firmly grip and hold things of all shapes and sizes. The gripper doesn’t need sensing, planning, or feedback control; it relies on simple inflation to wrap around items.

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“By taking advantage of the natural compliance of soft robotics and enhancing it with a compliant structure, we designed a gripper that is greater than the sum of its parts and a grasping strategy that can adapt to a range of complex objects with minimal planning and perception,” said Kaitlyn Becker, former graduate student and postdoctoral fellow at SEAS and first author of the paper.

The gripper’s ability to entangle itself to an object enables strength and allows it to adapt according to the object’s shape. These grippers are foot-long hollow rubber tubes, thick on one side allowing them to curl when pressurized. The curls knot and entangle with each other and the object, with each entanglement increasing the strength of the hold. While the collective hold is strong, each contact is individually weak and won’t damage even the most fragile object. To release the object, the filaments are simply depressurized.

Researchers used simulations to test the efficacy of the gripper, picking up a range of objects, including various houseplants and toys. The gripper could be used in real-world applications to grasp soft fruits and vegetables for agricultural production and distribution, delicate tissue in medical settings, and even irregularly shaped objects in warehouses, such as glassware.


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