If someone asks you to imagine a robot, says Daniela Rus, a professor at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT, you'll probably think of a robot with a human shape or a rugged industrial robotic arm. "But for me, I'd like to see a change," he tells The Verge .
The latest work of his team at MIT is a perfect example. It is a robot clamp designed to collect objects, but its appearance is unconventional, to say the least. Visually, it has more in common with a rubber tulip or a deflated balloon than a hand of a science fiction robot.
It is this unique aspect that makes the clamp potentially useful. Under its rubber skin there is an origami skeleton shaped like a starfish. As the gas enters and leaves the hermetic enclosure of the clamp, the entire device opens and closes like a flower.
The device is capable of picking up delicate objects without damaging them, while maintaining a grip strong enough to lift 100 times its own weight. "By combining this collapsible skeleton with the soft exterior, we get the best of both worlds," says Rus The Verge . "I'm excited about using a robot hand to start grabbing groceries."
Soft robot clamps like this one are not new. During the last decade, the field has experienced a boom, with engineers looking to take advantage of soft machines. A case of natural use is logistics: pick up items in warehouses and factories. Although much of this work has been automated, companies like Amazon continue to employ humans to handle individual items, packing them in bags and boxes.
This is because traditional robot clamps made of metal and hard plastics fight with delicate items and irregular shapes. The old cliché of an out-of-control killer robot that sings "crush, destroy" is not far away here. Your average robot in a factory today could not undo your purchases without turning eggs into tortillas and oranges in orange juice.
The soft robot clamps seem the best solution for this problem, and in recent years I have seen an explosion of such technology. Laboratories such as CSAIL, as well as commercial companies such as RightHand Robotics, have been involved in the action, developing everything from inflatable robots to bean-shaped tweezers to modules shaped like octopus tentacles.
Rus says that his new clamp is a better solution than any previous design. Its tulip shape means that it can approach objects from a number of angles, unlike a clamp that has the shape of hands, which usually have to come towards an object from the side. Due to its origami skeleton, which Rus and his team debuted in 2017, it has strength and flexibility.