Quick: Think of two adjectives to describe robots.

I’m willing to bet “soft” and “gentle” didn’t cross your mind there. Probably because in the past, robots have been anything but cuddly.

A team of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) have recently put an end to the cold, hard robot stereotype. They’ve created a new robotic hand made of silicone fingers so gentle it can coddle an egg. Even better, the fingers have built-in sensors, which lets the robot adjust to differently shaped and sized objects all on its own.

Despite shoddy cell service, I got Bianca Homberg and Robert Katzschmann – two of the researchers – on the phone in between sessions of the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systemsin Germany.

MIT CSAIL’s soft robotic hand holding a stuffed animal. Cute.

We had a quick Q&A, and they were excited to tell me more about their project:

How does this differ from robotic grippers of the past?

KatzschmannOne fundamental difference is that all of the robotic grippers of the past have been built in discrete segments. There are either little motors or cables within each joint. They have to link all of the flexible elements with cables in between to make the pieces move around. It’s really complicated.

Homberg: I think the biggest difference is that if you’re using a hard grip robot, you need to come up with complicated algorithms and complex graphing beforehand. And that’s to just grasp and lift an easy object. With ours, the fingers are flexible, so it will conform to whichever object you have in front of it. You don’t have to do any extensive planning.

The only downside with flexibility in a gripper is that you don’t necessarily know if you’ve pick up an object or if the gripper has dropped it. That’s where proprioception comes in, so it can sense how big the object is and if it has a good grip on the object.

Katzschmann: An initial problem we had to handle was external visual localization. It’s always been done externally from cameras; that’s how you see how the robot is moving. Bianca came into the lab and I asked her to help make the gripper fingers proprioceptive, so it can feel on its own without a camera. Camera’s are too clumsy to manipulate.

Where do you see this technology being translated into the real world? 

Bianca Homberg, lead author on the team’s research paper.

HombergI see this applied to two main areas. First, I think it could be used for manufacturing robots. They usually have several different gripper attachments and they have to change the attachments to complete different tasks.  With our soft one, they would be able to move between different areas on an assembly line without having to switch. So instead of having multiple grippers, they’d have one general purpose gripper.

Second, I think it will become important as robots make their way out of factories and into households. They have to be able to interact with humans and the human world, to be able to handle things gently.


KatzschmannWe want people to know that it’s completely safe. Interacting with this gripper – even if you hit it – is completely safe by design. No one will have to be scared to deal with robots.

Images provided.