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The Upper Hand: Researchers Devise a New Gripper Device

Pick and place operations have, since the invention of robots, been considered the quintessence of robotic operations. Most robot hands are designed to cater to a specific weight/shape/size limit when it comes to handling objects, and can typically not cope with uncertainties in the above mentioned .

Robot Hand
Source: Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL

To resolve this, engineers employ rubber suction grips that work on the principle of vacuum to pick up the desired object. This lets the robots pick up small, delicate objects, like apples, or grapes, but still does nothing for their ability to pick up heavier items, like boxes.

Now, a team of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology has devised a new method that allows them the upper hand on the grip problem. On one hand, the device offers a soft grip, owing to its rubbery texture. On the other, it is strong enough to lift objects about 100 times its weight. W

Construction and Working

The gripper, inspired by the Origami Magic Ball (also called the Origami Dragon Egg) is a conical, hollow device folded in tiny sections to allow it to collapse into itself, thus creating a vacuum and allowing the object to be picked up.

Created using a rubber mold and a special heat-shrinking plastic that self-folds at high temperatures, the gripper has three parts: the origami-based skeleton structure, the airtight skin made of rubber, and the connector.

Do You Even Lift, Bro?

The strength of the gripper was tested with a standard robot on different objects. The gripper could grasp and lift objects around 70 percent of its diameter, which allowed it to pick up and hold a variety of soft foods without causing damage. It could also pick up bottles weighing over four pounds.

“Previous approaches to the packing problem could only handle very limited classes of objects — objects that are very light, or objects that conform to shapes such as boxes and cylinders — but with the Magic Ball gripper system we’ve shown that we can do pick-and-place tasks for a large variety of items ranging from wine bottles to broccoli, grapes and eggs,” says MIT Professor Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Not surprisingly, the shape of the gripper makes it more difficult for it to grasp something flat, like a book, or a sheet of paper. The team hopes to resolve this using computer vision.

This gripper technology might prove to be a breakthrough in creating robots that offer the best of both worlds; being gentle enough to pick up an egg without breaking it, yet strong enough to lift weights. 

Why This Matters:

The new invention offers a practical, hands-on solution to handle objects that lie anywhere on the weight spectrum. This is particularly favourable for companies like Amazon, which store a plethora of products in all shapes, sizes and textures- some of which cannot be picked up by the current suction cups or rubber based fingers. 

The team will present their paper at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May.

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