UNSW researchers develop a gripper modeled after an elephant's trunk

Engineers from UNSW Sydney were inspired by nature to develop a soft fabric robotic gripper that behaves like an elephant's trunk. The gripper can grasp, pick up, and release objects without breaking them. Researchers believe the technology can be widely applied in many sectors where fragile objects are picked up.

The sectors could include agriculture, food, scientific, and resource exploration industries. The gripper could potentially be used for human rescue operations and as personal assistant devices as well. UNSW Medical Robotics Lab director Dr. Thanh Nho Do so that the gripper could be commercially available in the next 12 to 16 months. The only caveat to that timeframe prediction is that the team needs to find an industry partner.

Do said that the soft fabric gripper is thin, flat, and lightweight with the ability to encrypt and retrieve various objects even if the object is in a confined hollow space. One example given is that the gripper can retrieve a pen inside of a tube. Researchers integrated an enhanced real-time force sensor said to be 15 times more sensitive than conventional designs and able to detect how much grip strength is required to prevent damage to whatever it's handling.

The gripper features a thermally-activated mechanism able to change the gripper body from flexible to stiff and vice versa. That capability allows it to grasp and hold objects of varying shapes and weights. It's able to work with items up to 220 times heavier than the mass of the gripper. Dr. Do says that the new soft gripper is an improvement on existing designs.

Most soft grippers are based on claws for structures like the human hand with multiple inward bending fingers. Those designs make the grippers unsuitable for gripping objects that are strangely shaped, heavy, or bulky. Traditional grippers are also unable to grasp items smaller or larger than the opening of the gripper. The technology Do's research team developed is easily reproducible at different sizes and volumes using a simple and scalable fabrication process.