Typically, robotic hands have had trouble being dexterous enough and delicate enough to perform certain tasks, but robotics experts from Harvard University have been developing a series of soft robots, capable of accomplishing much more than previously.
The scientists published their findings in the journal Advanced Materials. George Whitesides and his colleagues created a robotic tentacle that can twist around a flower without damaging it. It’s made from a flexible plastic containing three air channels, running along the entire limb. The selective pumping of air into these channels causes the tentacle to bend, allowing it to curl around objects with a delicate grip.
The air channels can be split into multiple sections, letting the parts of the tentacle bend in different directions. This produces a full range of 3D movement. Previous efforts were limited to curling in just one direction.
Whitesides’ team also experimented with adding a video camera, syringe, and suction cups at the end of the tentacle, making it more than just a simple grabbing arm. This cheap and soft technology could make it ideal for working with fragile objects or maneuvering in confined as well as hazardous spaces, but the need for air channels makes it difficult to scale the tentacles down to anything smaller than at least a few centimeters in size.
Reference: “Robotic Tentacles with Three-Dimensional Mobility Based on Flexible Elastomers” by Ramses V. Martinez, Jamie L. Branch, Carina R. Fish, Lihua Jin, Robert F. Shepherd, Rui M. D. Nunes, Zhigang Suo and George M. Whitesides, 7 September 2012, Advanced Materials.