Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, have combined the adhesive characteristics of gecko toes with air-powered soft robots to give robot fingers a better grip. Capable of lifting objects up to 45 pounds, the gripper could be used everywhere from the manufacturing floor to the International Space Station.
The grippers were sent to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) where they were mounted to a Kuka robotic arm. To see if the gecko toes were worth the biomimicry, they tested the single gripper on a number of objects, like a porous rock, a tomato, and a JPL mug. The researchers also created a three-finger version of the gripper to see if it could pick up larger loads. The three-finger version lifted a dumbbell to prove that it could repeatedly lift heavier loads.
Gecko actuators are unique in their ability to grab rough and dirty objects. They not only form to match the surface of the object, but they also adapt as objects within their grasp shift and spin.
Geckos are some of the best climbers in nature because their toes have millions of microscopic hairs that are up to 30 times smaller than a human hair. At the end of each hair is a tiny nanostructure that grips to the surface. In previous studies, researchers have used the design of gecko feet to create a new type of adhesive. This latest research is the first time that the adhesive has been applied to a gripper.
Next, the researchers will look into potential new zero-gravity applications for the gripper. It appears the gripper might be on the space station before it’s on the factory floor.