robot tentacle gripper
Harvard Microrobotics Lab/Harvard SEAS

Robots tend to be a bit ham-handed when holding delicate objects. If you need help moving Fabergé eggs or glass figurines, it’s still best to ask a human. But Harvard is looking to give those clumsy robots the old soft touch with their new robot tentacle gripper.

Researchers from Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences got into the Halloween spirit by unveiling a robotic tentacle hand meant to curl around and totally not drop delicate or oddly-shaped items.

They look like a combination of octopus tentacles with AI spaghetti and those sentinels that kept chasing poor Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. If a person woke up with these instead of their regular hands, they’d never stop screaming. Let’s go to the videotape:

Gripping delicate items with robot hands usually requires advanced sensors and algorithms, not to mention a damn good pilot. So Harvard created one that uses soft, inflatable tubing able to dexterously wrap around difficult objects without needing such feedback controls.

“This new approach to robotic grasping complements existing solutions by replacing simple, traditional grippers that require complex control strategies with extremely compliant, and morphologically complex filaments that can operate with very simple control,” said Engineering and Applied Sciences Professor Robert Wood.

The gripper features pneumatic rubber filaments that can inflate and gently entangle an object, “similar to how jellyfish collect stunned prey,” the announcement explains. Those filaments can then release the equally stunned object by simply depressurizing.

Researchers tested the gripper on a range of objects, including houseplants and toys, probably grabbing the latter way more gently than children do. But since no one needs robots to handle toys, they also have real-world applications like grabbing delicate tissue in medical settings, glassware in warehouses, and even soft fruits and vegetables in agricultural industries. Hard fruits like pineapples can handle themselves.

The only downside is that this may be yet another example of robot automation taking jobs away from jellyfish and octopi.

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Chason Gordon is a staff writer and editor for How-To Geek. His writing has previously appeared in Slate, Vice, Input, and The Globe and Mail, among others. He currently lives in San Antonio, but is on a month-to-month lease.
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