An illustration of a yellow robot arm with a gripper

Origami-inspired robot gripper can pick up objects 100 times its own weight

Image credit: Emiel De Lange |

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s CSAIL and Harvard’s Wyss have developed a soft robotic gripper capable of handling delicate objects and picking up things up to 100 times its own weight.

The joint project by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering were looking into a solution to the problem of building a robot that’s strong enough to lift an object several times its own weight.

The collaborative team achieved this by inventing a robot ‘hand’ with a folding structure that collapses around an object to hold it securely – in a similar way to a Venus flytrap trapping an insect.

According to Daniela Rus, a professor at MIT’s CSAIL, the origami-inspired robot hand steers away from the first imaginations of a robot, such as a human-shaped bot. “But for me, I would like to see a change,” she said.

Soft, biologically inspired robots have become one of the field’s most exciting offshoots, with machines that are capable of squeezing between obstacles and conforming to the world around them.

Shaped like a cone, the gripper comprises three parts — a 3D-printed, 16-piece silicone rubber skeleton with a gripper-to-mount connector encased by an airtight skin — that together collapse in on objects as opposed to clutching them.

A novel robotic gripper designed by researchers at Harvard and MIT CSAIL

Jason Dorfman - MIT CSAIL

Image credit: Jason Dorfman / MIT CSAIL

Its origami-inspired skeletal structure is covered in either fabric or a deflated balloon – a principle the team recently employed on another project designed to create low-cost artificial muscles.

Like Soft Robotics’ commercial gripper, the malleable nature of the device means it can grab hold of a wide range of different objects with less need for a complex vision system. It also means that it can take hold of delicate items without damaging them in the process.

The robotic hand was inspired by the ‘magic ball’, an origami design that’s folded from a rectangular piece of paper pre-creased with a repeating, offset pattern that reversibly changes between a spherical and cylindrical shape.

Rus explained: “Previous approaches to the packing problem could only handle very limited classes of objects — objects that are very light or objects that conform to shapes such as boxes and cylinders. 

“But with the Magic Ball gripper system, we’ve shown that we can do pick-and-place tasks for a large variety of items ranging from wine bottles to broccoli, grapes and eggs – in other words, objects that are heavy and objects that are light. Objects that are delicate, or sturdy, or that have regular or freeform shapes.”

Speaking about potential uses of the robotic hand, Rus added: “One of my moonshots is to create a robot that can automatically pack groceries for you.

The team is scheduled to present their work — which was funded in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard — at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) this spring in Montreal.

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