February 1, 2016

Robotic Fingers with a Gentle Touch

(February 1, 2016)  Soft electronics are changing the way robots can touch. EPFL Scientists have developed a new soft robotic gripper -- made out of rubber and stretchable electrodes -- that can bend and pick up delicate objects like eggs and paper, taking robotics to a whole new level.

Have you ever rubbed a balloon in your hair to make it stick to the wall? This electrostatic stickiness called electroadhesion may change robotics forever.

EPFL scientists have invented a new soft gripper that uses electroadhesion: flexible electrode flaps that act like a thumb-index gripper. It can pick up fragile objects of arbitrary shape and stiffness, like an egg, a water balloon or paper.

This lightweight gripper may soon be handling food for the food industry, capturing debris in outer space or incorporated into prosthetic hands. The research, which was funded by NCCR Robotics, is featured in Advanced Materials.

"This is the first time that electroadhesion and soft robotics have been combined together to grasp objects," says Jun Shintake, doctoral student at EPFL and first author of the publication.

When the voltage is turned on, the electrodes bend towards the object to be picked up, imitating muscle function. The tip of the electrodes act like fingertips that gently conform to the shape of the object, gripping onto it with electrostatic forces in the same way that the balloon sticks to the wall. These electrodes can carry 80 times its own weight and no prior knowledge about the object's shape is necessary.

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