This Tongue-Like Robot Gripper Can Slurp Its Way Into Tight Spaces

This Tongue-Like Robot Gripper Can Slurp Its Way Into Tight Spaces

In another example of unsettling biomimicry, engineering researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney were inspired by an elephant’s trunk and designed what looks more like a robotic tongue that can firmly grasp objects by wrapping around them like a snake.

Biomimicry is an approach to engineering that takes inspiration from the natural world around us instead of trying to reinvent the wheel for machinery and robots. Mother Nature has already spent millions of years perfecting its designs through a slow process of adaptation and evolution resulting in plant and animal life well suited to our planet’s unique terrain and landscapes. It’s why one of the most advanced robotics design companies on the planet, Boston Robotics, designed its Spot to look and function like a dog, and its Atlas to move like a human parkour master.

It’s also why researchers at the University of New South Wales — or UNSW — took inspiration from animals like snakes and elephants to create a flexible robotic gripper made of soft fabric that can wrap around objects to securely hold and lift them without causing any damage in the process. An elephant’s trunk can have as many 40,000 muscles it uses to manipulate its long appendage with surprising dexterity, as well as millions of nerve endings allowing it to feel what it’s grasping in order to know how much pressure to apply.

The gripper doesn’t have quite as many muscles as an elephant’s trunk — zero, to be exact — but instead relies on materials that change their structure from rigid to flexible as heating and cooling are applied, and by layering fabrics with different heat-sensitive properties, the artificial trunk can coil itself up. The gripper also incorporates a real-time force sensor that’s 15 times more sensitive than previous applications of the technology, allowing the robot to know by feel alone when a gentle grasp is needed. While the gripper is a great example of biomimicry, it’s also designed to be an alternative to more traditional robot grippers designed and built to function like a human’s hand using multiple fingers that can bend with limited mobility.

As much as we like to think that we, as humans, represent Mother Nature’s most optimal design, this gripper’s ability to completely wrap around an object like a handle improves surface contact and increases its holding force, making it harder for an object under weight to accidentally slip out of the gripper’s grasp. The design also improves where this gripper can grasp onto objects, which is an advantage anyone who’s ever lost anything in the cracks next to a car’s seat can appreciate. Its ability to coil and uncoil itself in tight spaces, such as inside a narrow tube, give this design some interesting potential in real-world applications, such as being used for non-invasive medical procedures assuming the technology can be miniaturized.

The researchers are optimistic their robo-trunk could be commercialized in as little as a year’s time assuming they find an “industry partner” that can help them solve manufacturing issues. As to who would buy it? Aside from industrial and medical uses, imagine a tool that easily retrieves dropped french fries while you’re driving? Someone’s going to make a small fortune with this thing.