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The Soft Robotics Team at MIT Has Created New Robotic Hands That Have a Gentle Touch

soft robotics gripper from MIT CSAILHere’s some good news for the people that are worried about the robots rising up to take over the world: at least they’ll rule with a flexible fist!

That’s right—the soft robotics researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have been creating again. This time, they’ve been working with a substance more commonly associated with new buildings and Silly Putty: silicone.

At a conference this month, researchers from CSAIL demonstrated a 3-D-printed robotic hand made out of silicone rubber that can lift and handle objects as delicate as an egg and as thin as a compact disc. Just as impressively, its three fingers have special sensors that can estimate the size and shape of an object accurately enough to identify it from a set of multiple items. Check out this video of “the gripper” in action.

“Robots are often limited in what they can do because of how hard it is to interact with objects of different sizes and materials,” Director Daniella Rus tells Phys.org. “Grasping is an important step in being able to do useful tasks; with this work we set out to develop both the soft hands and the supporting control and planning systems that make dynamic grasping possible.”

The gripper, which can also pick up items such as a tennis ball, a Rubik’s cube, and a Beanie Baby, is part of a larger body of work out of Rus’ lab at CSAIL aimed at showing the value of so-called “soft robots” made of unconventional materials such as silicone, paper, and fiber. Remember the squishy robotic fish they made last year?

Researchers say that these soft robots have a number of advantages over “hard” robots, including the ability to handle irregularly-shaped objects, squeeze into tight spaces, and recover from collisions.

“A robot with rigid hands will have much more trouble with tasks like picking up an object,” says Bianca Homberg, a graduate student who co-wrote the research paper with Rus. “This is because it has to have a good model of the object and spend a lot of time thinking about precisely how it will perform the grasp.”

One major drawback to these soft robots is that because their parts are extra flexible, they sometimes have difficulty accurately measuring where an object is, or even if they have successfully picked the object up at all. That’s where the CSAIL team’s “bend sensors” come in.

When the gripper hones in on an object, the fingers send back location data based on their curvature. Using this data, the robot can pick up an unknown object and compare it to the existing clusters of data points that represent past objects.

PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, who also worked on the gripper, had this to say: “If you’re blindfolded and you pick something up, you can feel it and still understand what it is. We want to develop a similar skill in robots—essentially, giving them ‘sight’ without them actually being able to see.”

In the future, Rus says the team plans to put more time into improving and adding more sensors that will allow the gripper to identify a wider variety of objects.”Our dream is to develop a robot that, like a human, can approach an unknown object, big or small, determine its approximate shape and size, and figure out how to interface with it in one seamless motion.”

As our name suggests, Dream It Do It is certainly supportive of more creations from CSAIL and the soft robotics teams. Let’s just hope they don’t create something that’s so squishy, it can’t be stopped!

Photo credit: Phys.org

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