A new robotic grabber from pneumatic technology company Festo may very well be a good idea — but it doesn’t matter. Based on the design of an octopus tentacle, it can pick up even small, smooth, round objects without any chance of damaging them. That doesn’t matter either. What really matters here is that the tentacle, called OctopusGrabber, is a robot tentacle.
It’s a shame that OctopusGrabber looks so much like, well, a terrifying octopus grabber, since it has some real functional advantages over prior technologies. Grabbers are one of the most difficult problems in consumer robotics, since not only are many objects in human-world very delicate, they also need to be rotated and balanced in complex ways. It’s one thing to pick up a water bottle, and quite another to hold it steady while tipping it over to pour.
That sort of dexterity will be greatly helped by the introduction of feedback sensing that allows the grabber to feel what it’s touching — but again, we might not want to add that feature to a robot tentacle.
OctopusGrabber uses the suction cup approach, following the evolutionary design of the octopus itself, though it creates its suction through airflow. By grabbing an object equally around its entire body, the tentacle can avoid putting too much pressure on any one point, while still supporting it from all sides so it can be tipped and still held firm.
The arm on which the tentacle is mounted is even more impressive. Made almost entirely out of soft materials, its arm is filled with compressible “bellows” that act as the robot’s muscles. It comes in three segments, each with full, independent freedom of movement, allowing it to snake into places only the three-jointed human arm (and boneless octopus tentacle) can reach. This construction makes it incredibly strong relative to its own weight; weighing in at just over 6.5 pounds, it can lift and manipulate 6.5 pounds, as well.
This new robot arm comes with a modular attachment for less horrifying hands than OctopusGrabber. Festo has already shown off a Lost In Space-style three-fingered robot hand, and while it certainly has its limitations relative to a tentacle, it also has the advantage of not being a robot tentacle.
Beyond weight, the other big advantage of soft robotics is safety. Robots may enter the home to interact with the home itself, but it’s not until those robots can interact directly with their owners that they will really change people’s daily lives. With soft, dexterous grabbers this could be accomplished easily — but they’ll need to design those grabbers so that people feel comfortable touching them, or even just being in the same room.