Gross... but practical?

Knotty Knotty

Robotic hand and claw-like grippers haven't been able to achieve anything close to a human-like dexterity, making them a clumsy choice to pick up delicate or oddly shaped objects.

Now, researchers at Harvard's engineering school are working on an ingenious alternative: why not throw a bunch of grippy tentacles at an object and see what sticks?

Inspired by how jellyfish ensnare their prey, the tentacle gripper looks more like an unnatural creature out of a Cronenberg movie than something pulled from nature, incidentally right on time for Halloween. And hell, the tentacles are effective, according to the researchers' findings recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

"This new approach to robotic grasping complements existing solutions by replacing simple, traditional grippers that require complex control strategies with extremely compliant, and morphologically complex filaments that can operate with very simple control," said Robert Wood, professor of engineering and applied sciences at SEAS, in a press release about the work.

Chaos Science

The tentacles, or filaments, are made of rubber and aren't very strong individually. But working together, the slithy appendages can start to grapple some pretty heavy objects. Since each individual tentacle doesn't grip strongly, even delicate cargo like plants can be ensnared without risking damage.

And there's not a lot of fancy science involved, either. No special sensors or feedback and whatnot, just some limp, gangly tentacles that are thicker on one side so when you pump them full of air, they start to curl up. When it's time to set an object down, all it takes is releasing the pressure of that inflation. Of course, the curling is pretty random and isn't always going to entangle, but with enough tentacles and enough tries, it should stick.

While there's still some more fine tuning to be done, the tentacle gripper is already a promising prototype. And the researchers envision plenty of useful applications for the technology, like retrieving fragile artifacts on the ocean floor to moving fruits and vegetables in agricultural distribution.

More on weird grippers: Scientists Turn Dead Spiders Into "Necrobotic" Arachnoborgs

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