The farmHand is a robotic hand that can grip with great care and strong adhesion.
A close-up of the hand performing a highly hyperextended pinch on only the top surface of an egg. (Image credit: Biomimetics and Dextrous Manipulation Lab

Being able to grasp a baseball, a bottle of orange juice, plates and an angle grinder, but also grapes or a raw egg, is a challenge for robots. “You see robotic hands doing a power grip and a precision grip, and then it’s suggested that they can do everything in between,” says Wilson Ruotolo of Stanford University’s Biomimetics and Dextrous Manipulation Lab, describing the problem. “We wanted to figure out how to develop manipulators that were both dexterous and strong.” Now the researchers have developed a robotic gripper that can grasp objects with great care while maintaining strong adhesion. To achieve this, they combine adhesive fabrics based on gecko toes with a customised robotic hand.

Developed by PhD students Wilson Ruotolo and Dane Brouwer, the farmHand (the Lab is also known as “the Farm”), is capable of grasping and handling many different objects. The development benefits from two biological models: While the multi-jointed fingers are reminiscent of a human hand (with only four fingers), the gripping surfaces have a surface inspired by geckos. This grippy but non-sticky material is based on the structure of gecko toes and was developed over the last ten years by the Biomimetics and Dextrous Manipulation Lab under the direction of Professor Mark Cutkosky, who is also the lead author of this research paper.

The adhesive action of the farmHand is based on microscopic flaps that create a Van der Waals force when in contact with a surface. This allows the gripping surfaces, which do not feel sticky or leave residue, to adhere strongly but require little force to do so. The problem is that the adhesives have to bond to a surface in a certain way to activate the Van der Waals force. This is difficult to control when, as with the farmHand, a grip relies on several gecko adhesive patches touching an object at different angles.

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