Part of the versatility of the human hand’s ability to grasp almost anything comes from the ability to apply a soft touch to fragile or oddly shaped objects. This is something that robots struggle with, especially when operating autonomously, and unfortunately the solution could lie in a unorthodox clamp design this looks straight out of a horror movie.
Ernie Hudson | Early fandoms
It seems appropriate that Harvard researchers John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science are set to reveal their new claw design so close to Halloween as it’s inspired by bizarre sea creatures like octopuses and jellyfish that rely on clusters of long tentacles and filaments to trap and coil their prey for consumption. The giant squid has long been a mysterious creature in ocean lore, so why not recreate one in a lab?
Drawing inspiration from animals to build robots intended to accomplish a specific task is far from being a new idea. The human hand may be incredibly skilled, but it’s also incredibly difficult for a robot to replicate its abilities. The tentacles, on the other hand, are not, and it is their simplicity that is key to how this gripper design works.
The artificial tentacles are made from hollow rubber tubes a foot long, with one side being slightly thicker than the other. When empty they become limp and seemingly lifeless, hanging like stiff hair, but when filled with air they become pressurized and coil like a pigtail. The curling action is more or less completely random, so if you were to place an object next to one of the tentacles as it curled under pressure, there’s a chance it would wrap around of him, and lucky he didn’t. But place an object next to a large group of these tentacles, and it’s virtually guaranteed that at least a few of them will wrap around the object as they coil, and some against others, and the more these tangles occur, the stronger the adhesion becomes.
Collectively, the group of tentacles provide a solid grip on an object, but individually each tentacle has a relatively weak grip, meaning there is little risk of a fragile object being damaged in the process. And because the tentacles only provide a secure grip when filled with air, simply releasing that pressure will also release what’s being held.
Tested using real-world experiments with the prototype as well as simulations, researchers believe the new gripper design could be an effective alternative to what is used today to handle everything from plants to fruits and vegetables. , to delicate glassware. However, there are still some issues with the design that will need to be ironed out before something like this shows up in factories or warehouses. The random nature of tangles means that objects that have been picked up cannot be put back down with the same accuracy and precision as vacuum grippers that are used to handle delicate objects today, posing a great challenge for tasks automated. such as packaging or preparing a part for the next stage of an automated assembly line.