Inflatable Plastic Tentacle Could Be Robot Hand of the Future
The robot hands of the future have generally been envisioned as cold, steely mimics of our own appendages, exceedingly well equipped for squeezing the life out of their flesh and blood creators with four fingers and a thumb, as God intended. The hand evolution made best for us may not be the one that’s most fitting for our coming android overlords. More and more roboticists and engineers are looking into inflatable limbs that can grip a variety of objects as the wave of the future. This week, Harvard got in on the act, with researchers introducing a soft, plastic, tentacle-inspired gripper hand that inflates in individually controlled segments for maximum grip customization. The tentacle can gently hold a flower, readily coil around a piece of plastic, and may one day be the thing that crushes your windpipe like a drinking straw.
Inflatable arms could have a lot of benefits over articulated robotic hands. While they’re getting stronger and more durable, articulated human style robot hands are not renowned for their light touch. An inflatable hand, though, is an adjustable hand. That means that it can provide as much — or as little — pressure as necessary to get the job done, and could make it easier for robots to manipulate fragile items. Inflatable arms also grant robots more flexibility and maneuverability, as they can be deflated and stowed away when not in use, trimming the amount of space a robot takes up.
Harvard’s design is a pretty simple one: A flexible plastic tube with multiple channels within it, each of which can be inflated or deflated separately. Using multiple channels also allows designers to control the arm in three dimensions, letting it curl fully around objects for a grip that’s firm, but not too firm — like a confident handshake that’s not trying too hard, or a pillow that’s just right.