Scientists from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a robot that is capable of gripping or grabbing light and soft objects with the most gentle and soft action ever seen in any robots. It uses a technology called electroadhesion, based on electrostatic stickiness.
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The robot is able to pick up very fragile objects such as an egg, paper, or water balloon the way a human would carefully use his thumb and index fingers to pick up such objects. With the success of the new soft gripper, researchers think the technology might later be applied to handling food in restaurants and food factories, or added to prosthetic hands or even used to gather floating junks in outer space.
The study was published in the journal Advanced Materials and funded by NCCR Robotics.
"This is the first time that electroadhesion and soft robotics have been combined together to grasp objects," said Jun Shintake, doctoral student at EPFL and first author of the publication.
When it is powered on, the electrodes incorporated within the light gripper bends like a muscle to pick up a target object. It is not necessary for the electrodes to be familiar with the shape of the object to be picked up beforehand, and it is capable of conforming itself to the shape of the object to be picked up.
Other grippers developed before this time had failed to pick up flat objects like paper or deformable objects, and they had also been incapable of picking up very fragile objects without prior familiarity with the shape of the objects.
According to Dario Floreano and Herbert Shea both of EPFL, "The novelty of our soft gripper is the ideal combination of two technologies: artificial muscles and electroadhesion. Our unique configuration of electrodes and silicone membranes is what allows us to control the bending of the flaps and the electrostatic grip."
There are five layers within the electrode flaps – two outer layers of silicone with different thickness and one stretched elastomer layer placed between two other electrodes. When it is powered on, the electrodes tips are able to pick up fragile and soft or flat objects with ease without previously knowing their shapes in an optimal electrostatic grip process known as electroadhesion.
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