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Robot Octopus Can Be Trusted with Fragile Objects

The tentacles work together to lift heavy, fragile or awkward objects.

In most cases, if you have a fragile object that needs to be picked up and moved, you wouldn’t ask a robot or an octopus. You just can’t be sure they won’t break it. But maybe a robot octopus is a different story?

A group of researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering have developed a set of robot grippers that are essentially a set of tentacles working together to lift heavy, fragile or awkward objects. And whereas many robot grippers need sensors, feedback loops and machine learning algorithms along with an experienced operator to pick up objects without breaking them, the tentacles are surprisingly simple.

The robot octopus consists of hollow rubber tubes that are thicker on one side so that, when they are inflated, they curl up. That way, when the robot drapes the tentacles over an object, they twist and tangle together to form a collective grip. And since each one is basically just a long balloon, they’re gentle enough to not damage sensitive parts. When it’s time to let go, the pressure is released from the tentacles.

Professor Robert Wood said the new technology could change the way robots are used for grasping objects by replacing traditional grippers, which often rely on two or three pressure points and require control that can be tricky to master, with compliant and complex filaments that are relatively simple to control.

The research team has been busy testing the tentacles by picking up objects like houseplants and toys. As far as real-world applications, they said the technology could be used to pick up fruits and vegetables for agricultural production and distribution, delicate tissue in medical settings, and irregularly shaped objects in a warehouse setting.

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