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Micro Tentacles For Robot Fingers

The rubbery microtentacle shown here isstrong and small enough to trap and ant, but soft enough not to injure it. (Photo credit: Jaeyoun Kim/Iowa State University.)
The rubbery microtentacle shown here is strong and small enough to trap and ant, but soft enough not to injure it.
(Photo credit: Jaeyoun Kim/Iowa State University.)

Researchers are working on tiny tentacles that could allow robots to handle very small, delicate items.

“Most robots use two fingers and to pick things up they have to squeeze,” said Jaeyoun Kim, an Iowa State University associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, in a statement. “But these tentacles wrap around very gently.”

The tentacles are actually more like tubes, that measure just 8 millimeters long and less than a hundredth of an inch wide. They’re made from PDMS, a transparent and soft material. Kim has been working with the material for about ten years, building micro-electro-mechanical systems.

To make a tentacle, one end of the tube is sealed air is pumped in and out. The air pressure and the microtube’s asymmetrical wall thickness creates a circular bend. A small lump of PDMS at the base of the tube amplifies the bend, creating a two-turn spiral.

=”Spiraling tentacles are widely utilized in nature for grabbing and squeezing objects,” the engineers wrote in a paper outlining their work. “There have been continuous soft-robotic efforts to mimic them…, but the life-like, multi-turn spiraling motion has been reproduced only by centimeter-scale tentacles so far. At millimeter and sub-millimeter scales, they could bend only up to a single turn.”

Creating the tubes so that they would coil was tricky and required new production techniques and computer modeling.

Soft and small, Kim says the microrobotic tentacles could be ideal for medical applications, as they wouldn’t damage tissues or blood vessels.

“There’s microrobotics, where people want to make robots smaller and smaller. And there’s soft robotics, where people don’t want to make robots out of iron and steel. This project is an overlap of both of those fields,” Kim said. “I want to pioneer new work in the field with both microscale and soft robotics.”

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