Fifty years ago, the first industrial robot arm (called Unimate) assembled a simple breakfast of toast, coffee and champagne. While it might have looked like a seamless feat, every movement and placement was coded with careful consideration. Even with today's more intelligent and adaptive robots, this task remains difficult for machines with rigid hands. They tend to work only in structured environments with predefined shapes and locations, and typically can't cope with uncertainties in placement or form. In recent years, though, roboticists have come to grips with this problem by making fingers out of soft, flexible materials like rubber. This pliability lets these soft robots pick up anything from grapes to boxes and empty water bottles, but they're still unable to handle large or heavy items. To give these soft robots a bit of a hand, National Science Foundation-funded researchers have developed a new gripper that's both soft and strong: a cone-shaped origami structure that collapses in on objects, much like a Venus flytrap, to pick up items that are as much as 100 times its weight. This motion lets the gripper grasp a much wider range of objects -- such as soup cans, hammers, wine glasses, drones and even a single broccoli floret.
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