Developers are picking up the pace in soft robotics
The standard robotic arm of the factory floor is clunky, mechanical and still, despite considerable advancements, heavy handed. These robots can certainly make industrial processes safer and more efficient, but you might not trust them with more delicate tasks.
The latest soft robot from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), however, breaks the mould. Appearing more like a flower than a piece of machinery, CSAIL’s Origami Robot Gripper is a collapsible skeleton that can suck up objects using a vacuum. Its rubber skin aids with grip, allowing the robot to pick up items from any angle regardless of their shape. Currently, ‘hard’ robots struggle with non standard shapes and, unlike the Origami inspired bot, can easily apply too much or too little force.
Another benefit of the soft robot is that it is lightweight, and made with relatively inexpensive materials. This means it is cheaper and, thanks to a simple design, less complex to make. And, instead of requiring extensive programming to handle different shapes and sizes, its vacuum can pick up a variety of products from mushrooms to bottles of wine. It’s also capable of lifting 100 times its own weight. Scale up the design, and the Origami gripper could reliably retrieve a whole range of items.
The most obvious application for MIT’s model is in groceries, either at physical checkouts or in warehouses. Building a robot that can successfully handle delicate groceries is an important step towards the adoption of bots in other industries too. For example, the project was supported by the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency, which suggests future military use. Other industrial opportunities include healthcare and complicated manufacturing.
MIT’s bot reflects changing perceptions of what robots should look like and the tasks they can be trusted to carry out. Gradually, soft robots are proving that they are more adaptable and applicable than their traditional counterparts.
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