This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE. While robots have prepared entire breakfasts since 1961, general manipulation in the real world is arguably an even more complex problem than autonomous driving. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why, though. Closely watching the 1961 video suggests that a two-finger parallel gripper is good enough for a variety of tasks, and that it is only perception and encoded common sense that prevents a robot from performing such feats in the real world.
Robot hands tend to skew toward extremes. They can pick up delicate objects or heavy objects, but rarely both. Its researchers have developed a Venus flytrap-like gripper that can grab objects as fragile as a grape, but also items 100 times its weight -- even if they're oddly shaped. The trick relies on a combination of clever physics with brute force. The underlying gripper revolves around a 3D-printed origami structure made out of a plastic that folds on itself at high temperatures.
In a paper published Wednesday, Jan. 16, in Science Robotics, engineers at the University of California, Berkeley present a novel, "ambidextrous" approach to grasping a diverse range of object shapes without training. "Any single gripper cannot handle all objects," said Jeff Mahler, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper. "For example, a suction cup cannot create a seal on porous objects such as clothing and parallel-jaw grippers may not be able to reach both sides of some tools and toys." Mahler works in the lab of Ken Goldberg, a UC Berkeley professor with joint appointments in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences and the Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. The robotic systems used in most e-commerce fulfillment centers rely on suction grippers which can limit the range of objects they can grasp.
A robotic gripper inspired by the adhesive properties of gecko hands will soon be adorning robots around the world. We've written about OnRobot's Gecko Gripper before, but its commercial availability this year highlights the growing competition and dazzling science coming out of the niche market for "robot hands." The Gecko Gripper uses millions of "micro-scaled fibrillar stalks," which stick to smooth surfaces using van der Waals forces, which is the mechanism geckos use to climb. The gripper grew out of a Stanford research project that inspired work at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. NASA was exploring van der Waals forces as an effective way to capture orbiting satellites for salvage or repair.
In August, the Bethlehem, Pa., candy maker will begin installing at its factory 16 robots with squishy blue "fingers" that can pick up and hold the pillowy Peeps without bruising them. "We needed something like the human hand," says Brent Edsoren, senior project engineer at Just Born. Robots with pliant, dexterous--and fast--appendages are gaining popularity as companies in retail, food handling and agriculture move toward more automation. Fragile, malleable products that vary in shape and size, such as fruits and vegetables, suffer at the hands of conventional robots, in part because machines lack the highly tuned sensory feedback that humans have at their fingertips. Robotic dexterity is a difficult and not yet fully solved problem, analysts say.