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This new soft robotic gripper can gently pick up objects of practically any shape

Robots aren’t exactly known for their delicate touch, but soon, the stereotype of the non-gentle machine may change. Scientists say they have managed to develop a robot with “a new soft gripper” that makes use of a phenomenon known as electroadhesion — which is essentially the next best thing to giving robots opposable thumbs. According to EPFL scientists, these next-gen grippers can handle fragile objects no matter what their shape — everything from an egg to a water balloon to a piece of paper is fair game.

This latest advance in robotics, funded by NCCR Robotics, may allow machines to take on unprecedented roles. “This is the first time that electroadhesion and soft robotics have been combined together to grasp objects,” said Jun Shintake, a doctoral student at EPFL. Potential applications include handling food, capturing debris (both in space and at home), or even being integrated into prosthetic limbs.

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The robotic “fingers” work by way of electrodes, which bend towards the object in question much like a human muscle would move. The electrodes’ tips then “gently conform” to the object, holding onto it with electrostatic forces — the same forces at play between a balloon and your hair or the wall. Most impressive is the weight capacity of these electrodes, which can carry up to 80 times their own weight.

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“The novelty of our soft gripper is the ideal combination of two technologies: artificial muscles and electroadhesion,” said PhD co-supervisor of the new research, Dario Floreano of EPFL. His co-supervisor, PhD Herbert Shea added, “Our unique configuration of electrodes and silicone membranes is what allows us to control the bending of the flaps and the electrostatic grip.”

You can check out the ingenious new technology in EPFL’s new video, and thank sweet, sweet technology for making machines a gentler species.