Soft fabric robot grips objects like an elephant's trunk

The new tool may someday be used in work that needs a light touch.

  • A team of engineers has developed a shape shifting tool that can grasp strangely shaped objects.
  • Unlike robots based on claws, this device can wrap around objects for a better grip.
  • It could be commercially available in as little as a year.

A team of engineers from the University of New South Wales has created a strange new robotic tool to pick up objects with finesse. The device, inspired by the form of an elephant's trunk but having the movement of a snake, may be applied as an alternative to tools used to grasp and hold objects which are less flexible or capable of applying lower levels of pressure.

Dr. Thanh Nho Do, the UNSW Medical Robotics Lab director, and Ph.D. candidate Trung Thien Hoang were the senior and lead authors of a study published in Advanced Materials Technologies this month describing the device.


Most grippers used by individuals, professionals, or industrial machines are based on the human hand or a claw. While there are advantages to this design, it is not ideal for grabbing oddly shaped objects or ones that are much larger or smaller than the grabber itself. They can also be challenging to use with fragile items.

This is where this new design stands out.

As a long and flat object, it can take advantage of having a larger surface area than a hand or claw. This increases the holding force without needing to apply more pressure, a principle that would be known to anyone who has tried to hold something with their fingernails rather than their palm. The coiling motion is made possible by the "manufacturing process involving computerised apparel engineering and applied newly designed, highly sensitive liquid metal-based tactile sensors for detecting the grip force required," according to study co-author Professor Nigel Lovell.

It also features a very precise force sensor, which allows it to detect how much grip is needed and to prevent it from breaking the object. The grabber's ability to change shape is considered a further advantage, as it allows it to enter into small spaces to collect items, as seen in the demonstration with a pencil in a tube.

A prototype gripper used during testing weighed a mere 8.2 grams and lifted an object of 1.8 kilograms (almost 4 pounds) – that's more than 220 times the gripper's mass. Another one that was 11.8 inches long wrapped around an item with a diameter of 1.2 inches. The production methods for the device are scaleable, and variations of the design can be made much larger.

The researchers suggest that the tool could find wide application in fields where fragile objects are handled, such as agriculture, the exploration industries, rescue operations, assistant services, and other areas where claw or hand-shaped grippers are impractical or sub-optimal.

Dr. Do has also stated, "We are also working on combining the gripper with our recently announced wearable haptic glove device, which would enable the user to remotely control the gripper while experiencing what an object feels like at the same time."

He also suggested that the gripper could be mass-produced for commercial use within a year if a manufacturing partner can be found.

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