An origami design helps this robot lift delicate and heavy cargo

The new soft gripper can easily pick up an apple, rubber ducky, electric drill and more

robotic gripper grabbing an apple

A LIGHT TOUCH  A lightweight, vacuum-driven robotic gripper can pick up objects of a range of shapes and sizes, including fruit.

Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIl

A new robotic gripper is a strong “hand” with a soft touch.

The bell-shaped gripper has a silicone rubber skeleton with an intricate origami design, wrapped in an airtight, latex rubber skin. When a vacuum sucks air out of the gripper, the skin constricts, forcing the origami skeleton to collapse into a narrow funnel. The bunched-up gripper’s ridged interior and rough latex skin help it keep ahold of objects.

Shuguang Li, a roboticist at Harvard University and MIT, and colleagues plan to present this device at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Montreal in May.

In lab experiments, the soft gripper picked up household objects of various sizes and shapes, successfully glomming onto a smartphone and the handle of a mug, among other things. Whereas rigid robotic hands lack dexterity and might be liable to crush delicate objects, this rubber gripper gently handles fragile items such as soft fruits and wine glasses.

And unlike other soft robotic hands, which struggle to lift heavy cargo, this device could lift up to about 12 kilograms — more than 120 times its own weight (SN: 9/16/17, p. 8). That ability allowed the gripper to hoist an electric drill and a full bottle of wine. Such a versatile gripping machine could one day work on a factory assembly line or lend a hand around the house.

ON HAND A new soft robotic gripper picks up objects of various sizes and shapes without letting heavier objects slip out of its grasp or crushing delicate items.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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