If someone asks you to imagine a robot, says Daniela Rus, a professor at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), you will probably think of a human-shaped robot or some rugged industrial robotic arm. “But for me, I would like to see a change,” she says The edge.
His team’s latest work at MIT is a perfect example. It’s a robot gripper designed to pick up objects, but its appearance is unconventional, to say the least. Visually, it has more in common with a rubber tulip or deflated balloon than a sci-fi robot hand.
It is this unique aspect that makes the clamp potentially useful. Beneath its rubber skin is an origami skeleton shaped like a starfish. As the gas moves in and out of the hermetic enclosure of the clamp, the entire device opens and closes like a flower.
The device is capable of picking up delicate objects without damaging them, while maintaining a grip strong enough to lift 100 times its own weight. “By combining this folding skeleton with the soft exterior, we get the best of both worlds,” says Rus. The edge. “I’m excited about using that robot hand to start grabbing groceries.”
Soft robot grippers like this one aren’t new. Over the past decade, the field has boomed, with engineers looking to take advantage of soft machines. A natural use case is logistics: picking up items from warehouses and factories. Although much of this work has been automated, companies like Amazon continue to employ humans to handle individual items, packing them in bags and boxes.
This is because traditional robot grippers made of metal and hard plastics struggle with delicate items and irregular shapes. The old cliche of a runaway killer robot chanting “smash, destroy” is not far off here. Your average robot in a factory today couldn’t undo your purchases without turning eggs into omelets and oranges into orange juice.
Soft robot grippers seem like the best solution to this problem, and recent years have seen an explosion of such technology. Labs like CSAIL, as well as commercial companies like RightHand Robotics, have gotten in on the action, developing everything from inflatable robot hands to beanbag-shaped grippers to octopus tentacle-shaped modules.
Rus says his new caliper is a better solution than any previous design. Its tulip shape means that it can approach objects from a number of angles, unlike a gripper that is shaped like hands, which generally have to come towards an object from the side. Due to his origami skeleton, which Rus and his team debuted in 2017, he has strength and flexibility.
“This is the first … to create a robot hand that can do such useful work.”
As for why such devices have yet to be adopted, Rus says it’s because commercial solutions have yet to catch up with “innovations coming out of the lab.” Another reason could be institutional inertia. Once companies have invested in expensive equipment, replacing it is not an easy decision, especially if upgrading your hardware may mean reorganizing your entire production line.
There is no question that the field of soft robotics continues to generate strange and potentially useful creations. And if Rus and his colleagues have their way, it won’t be long until our mental image of what appears to be a robot changes forever. “This is the first, to our knowledge, to create a robot hand that can do such useful work,” says Rus.