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December 9, 2022

Sea Inspired Robot Arms

Researchers at Harvard University are developing a soft robotic system that can handle complex and fragile objects by using entanglement grasping.

Credit: U.S. National Science Foundation

Sea Inspired Robot Arms

If you've ever tried to pick up a stuffed animal in a coin-operated claw game, you know the robot grabber can be clumsy and awkward to control. But what if the claw was modeled on the stuffed octopus you tried to pick up? Are more arms better? We'll explore how these creatures of the sea inspire the next generation of robotics in the U.S. National Science Foundation's "Discovery Files."

In both biological and engineered mechanisms, precise planning and sensitive gripping must interact to allow for grasping or handling of an object to occur. A challenge in designing robots to grab something are the sensors and planning needed to target objects with complex geometries and pick them up.

NSF-supported engineers at Harvard University are working on a new soft robotic system that can handle complex objects by using entanglement grasping. Utilizing an array of pneumatically actuated filaments on the size scale of the targeted object, these tentacles can grasp and securely hold heavy and odd shaped objects.

The system doesn't require sensing, planning, or feedback control, saving a massive amount of computational and machine learning resources. And can adjust to pick up soft and fragile objects.

Potential real-world applications include agricultural production & distribution, the handling of delicate tissues in medical settings, the handling of irregular objects such as glassware in warehouses or use in the sea handling endangered coral or recovering priceless artifacts from a sunken ship.

To hear more science and engineering news, including the researchers making it, subscribe to "NSF's Discovery Files" podcast.

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