Engineers from Harvard got around the problem of making a gripper that works like a human hand by giving it a bunch of tentacles.
Man, those hands are hard to beat. Four fingers? A thumb that can move? A design classic. But scientists have never stopped trying to improve on what nature has already done. And their latest attempt to out-finger people is both scary and fun.
The Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) engineers who made this gripper in the shape of a jellyfish don’t seem to have given it a name. We can go ahead and call this guy “Mr. Jelly Hands” without offering any justification for the appellation.
Mr. Jelly Hands is an attempt to solve the gripper problem, which is the problem of making a robot that can grab things as well as a human can. The problem is not just that our hands are mechanically complicated and therefore expensive to make out of gears and levers, but also that the software that controls them is very well-tuned and can do all kinds of dexterous movements, even though you tend to drop your coffee mug.
It’s hard to make software that has this kind of intelligence, so many roboticists avoid the problem by making hardware that has some of the same qualities. They don’t have robot hands, so they use suction cups and balloons that can be deflated. Or, in this case, tentacles that move with the air. This means that Mr. Jelly Hands doesn’t have to have a very smart brain to work. Basically, you can just throw it in the general direction of the thing you want to pick up, blow up the tentacles, and it will grab on as best it can.
Or, as the Harvard engineers put it in a paper that was published in the journal PNAS:
The design of the gripper and the item, as well as how the gripper interprets the object and arranges its actions, can have a profound effect on the success of a grasp. This is true for both biological and artificial mechanisms. Here, we avoid the need for feedback or precise planning by using a number of thin, hollow, elastomeric filaments that are activated by fluids to actively tangle with objects of different shapes and topologies.
As I said, you throw it and see what happens.
The tentacles are just rubber tubes filled with air. One side of the material is a little bit thicker than the other, so when the tubes are inflated, they curl in a certain direction, like a finger beckoning. The engineers say that each tube isn’t very strong on its own, but when they all work together, Mr. Jelly Hands can pick up some pretty heavy things. Even better, the pneumatic design makes it easy to change the amount of force used, so it can be used to pick up fragile objects without hurting them.
So, what good is any of this besides making me think of those monster barnacles from Half-Life? Well, there are a lot of possible uses, from making robots that pick up fruit and vegetables in warehouses to making underwater drones that can look at coral and other fragile sea life.
I don’t care where Mr. Jelly Hands goes, as long as those dummies at Harvard remember who came up with the great name.