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That’s exactly what George Whitesides and his team at Harvard have achieved. By using silicone elastomer tubing and pressurised air, they produced a ‘tentacle’ that can be used for picking up delicate or complicated objects such as flowers or horseshoes. Published in Advanced Materials this month, this is the latest in a series of developments in the ‘pneumatic network’ method over the past few years. Previously, the group developed a starfish-like gripper that could pick up an egg, but the gripping motion was the limit of its movement. Whitesides’ groups have also used this soft robotics technology to develop a crawling robot.
This new tentacular system has hard polymer tubing running through the centre which can bend easily – but resists stretching – surrounded by a highly elastic polymer with channels running through it to allow pressurised air to enter. By controlling which channel the air enters, the tentacle can be manipulated to twist and turn in three dimensions. The construction of the tubing might be simple, but controlling it looks a lot more difficult!
Describing the new system as a tentacle is selling it short — it can do so much more. Just like an elephant’s trunk, it can use the central tubing for suction, either to lift objects or suck up liquids and powders. Just like the best robots (or colonoscopes), it can even have a video camera attached to the end.
As well as being cheaper than conventional ‘hard’ robots, this soft tubing has other advantages. The nature of the system allows for an even pressure spread across the object, rather than the ‘pincer’ method that we use with our fingers and that many robots try to emulate. Also, the stiff links and fixed structure of most robotic arms mean that they have difficulty in situations that they are not specialised for. The flexibility of the tubing allows it to grip in various ways and adapt as is needed.
The long list of innovations coming from the lab of George Whitesides have led to him having his name on nearly 1000 academic papers and over 100 patents. He is a co-founder of a dozen companies, including Genzyme which was the third largest biotech company in the world before it was acquired by Sanofi for $20 billion in 2011. With the level of development in this technology, I imagine it won’t be long before we see these tentacles going commercial.
Ian Le Guillou