Hands, man, they’re a tough gig to beat. Four fingers? An opposable thumb? A design classic. But that’s never stopped scientists from trying to surpass what nature perfected. And their latest attempt to out-fing humanity’s fingers is pleasingly terrifying.
The engineers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) that designed this jellyfish-inspired gripper don’t seem to have blessed it with a name. So, in the interest of sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong, I’m going to call it... Mr. Jelly Hands, without making any real effort to justify that choice.
Mr. Jelly Hands is an attempt to solve the ever-vexing gripper problem in robotics: that is, the challenge of designing something that grabs as well as a human can. The problem is not only that our hands are mechanically complex and thus expensive to replicate in gears and levers but that the software controlling them is — despite your tendency to drop your coffee mug — incredibly well-tuned and capable of all sorts of dextrous movement.
Trying to replicate this intelligence in software is a challenge, so many roboticists avoid the problem altogether by designing hardware that embodies some of these same attributes. Instead of robot hands, they use suction cups and deflatable balloons. Or, in this case, pneumatic tentacles. This means that Mr. Jelly Hands doesn’t have to have a particular smart brain to operate. Essentially, you can just throw it in the general direction of the object you want to pick up, inflate the tentacles, and it’ll grab on as best as it can.
Or, as the Harvard engineers put it in a paper published in the journal PNAS:
“Grasping, in both biological and engineered mechanisms, can be highly sensitive to the gripper and object morphology, as well as perception and motion planning. Here, we circumvent the need for feedback or precise planning by using an array of fluidically actuated slender hollow elastomeric filaments to actively entangle with objects that vary in geometric and topological complexity.”
Like I said: you throw it and find out.
The tentacles themselves are just rubber tubes filled with air, but the material is slightly thicker on one side than the other, meaning when the tubes are inflated, they curl in a specific direction, like a beckoning finger. The engineers note that the strength of each individual tube is weak, but combining them together allows Mr. Jelly Hands to grab some pretty heavy objects. Even better, the pneumatic design makes it easy to adjust the force applied, so the design is also capable of grabbing delicate objects without harm.
So what use is any of this, apart from reminding me of those barnacle monsters from Half-Life? Well, there are all sorts of potential applications, from creating robots that pick up fruit and veg in warehouses to undersea drones that can examine fragile sea creatures and coral.
I don’t personally mind where Mr. Jelly Hands ends up, so long as those egg-heads at Harvard remember who to thank for its brilliant name.