Researchers from UNSW Sydney have designed a robotic gripper, similar to an elephant’s trunk, capable of picking up and handling delicate objects without causing them damage. The engineers state that the new gripper could be used in applications where fragile things are handles, including agriculture, food, exploration, and even rescue operations and human assistant devices. What’s more, the robotic trunk could become available in the next year or so if the engineers can secure an industry partner.
Inspired by nature, the soft fabric gripper is thin, flat, and can grasp objects even in tight spaces, such as a pen housed inside a tube. An enhanced tactile real-time force sensor detects grip strength, preventing object damage, as well as a thermally-activated mechanism that can change the gripper body from flexible to stiff and back again. This enables the robotic gripper to grab and hold items of various shapes and weights, with up to 220 times heavier than the gripper’s mass.
The team designed the soft fabric gripper with an effortless method of simple insertion using a computerized technique from apparel engineering, which is controlled by a miniature hydraulic source to grasp different things at contrasting geometries and weights. The gripper is still undergoing development, but the engineers hope to optimize the integrated materials, develop a closed-loop control algorithm, and integrate the mechanism into robotic arms for handling objects autonomously. They are also looking into integrating the gripper with a previously designed haptic glove, allowing users to operate the gripper remotely and ‘feel’ whatever's being handled.