Sticky fingers, undamaged tomatoes.
The problem with robotic hands, at least when compared to human hands, is one of surface tension. Human fingers have a myriad of subtle grooves across their surface, which is what allows us to maintain a firm grip on something without squeezing it into dust with our entire hand. Since robotic hands are usually made of smooth plastics, they have to put more force into holding something, which prevents them from handling delicate objects. What the next generation of robotic hand needs is subtly sticky fingers.
A research team based out of Stanford University has successfully created a prototype model of such a robotic hand, and the one we have to thank for the idea is none other than the humble gecko. The device, FarmHand, has human-like fingers coated with a special material designed to mimic the adhesive properties of a gecko hand, using small suctioning grooves to create a little sticky vacuum whenever something is grasped. Using this tech, FarmHand can grasp something delicate like a tomato in a firm grip without damaging its surface.
“You’ll see robotic hands do a power grasp and a precision grasp and then kind of imply that they can do everything in between,” said Wilson Ruotolo, a former graduate student in the Biomimetics and Dextrous Manipulation Lab at Stanford University. “What we wanted to address is how to create manipulators that are both dexterous and strong at the same time.”
Not only could FarmHand provide inspiration for a new wave of robots with firm handshakes, but the adhesive tech its pads utilize could also be translated into things like all terrain shoes and tire treads. So next time you see a gecko, make sure to thank it for its contribution to technology!