Ask most robots to pick up an egg and you end up with... a broken egg. But this pair of automated fingers uses an incredibly delicate thin film and some simple physics to grasp fragile objects with relative ease. Developed by researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, the system uses two flaps of silicone which contain specially shaped electrodes. The electrodes are charged with a little voltage to create an electrostatic force — the same form of static that allows you to rub a balloon on your sweater then stick it to a wall — allowing it to grip onto the surface of an object beneath.
The electrodes can carry an object around 80 times their own weight, and they don't need to know a thing about the item in question — they just have to get close enough to take a hold. Their deformable shape also means that irregular objects can be picked up, too. The researchers hope the new digits could make an appearance wherever a gentle robotic touch is needed: in automated food production lines, perhaps, or even in prosthetic hands.