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Electroadhesion: Robotic Fingers Have Gentle Touch

First Posted: Feb 02, 2016 01:05 PM EST

Scientists have created a new soft gripper that uses electroadhesion, where its flexible electrode flaps mimic a thumb-index grip. Electroadhesion is a form of electrostatic stickiness, which the EPFL scientists have applied to their new robotic "finger" that can pick up soft and fragile objects, like a water balloon, an egg or paper.

"This is the first time that electroadhesion and soft robotics have been combined together to grasp objects," Jun Shintake, coauthor of the study, said in a news release.

The lightweight gripper has several potential applications, such as handling food in the food industry, developed into prosthetic hands and even capturing debris in outer space, according to the researchers.

When the voltage is turned on, the electrodes bend toward the object and pick it up, similarly to muscle function. The tip of the electrodes function as fingertips, where it gently surrounds the shape of the object. Electrostatic forces enable the finger to grip the object. The electrodes are capable of carrying 80 times their own weight and do not require any knowledge of the object's shape.

"The novelty of our soft gripper is the ideal combination of two technologies: artificial muscles and electroadhesion," said Dario Floreano, coauthor of the study.

The electrode flaps have five layers: a pre-stretched elastomer layer in between two layers of electrodes, along with two outer layers of silicone with varying thickness. The flaps curl outward when the voltage is off and the two layers of electrodes straighten when the voltage is on. The movement from a curled to a straightened position is similar to muscle flexion. The tips of the flaps work as an electrostatic grip.

"Our unique configuration of electrodes and silicone membranes is what allows us to control the bending of the flaps and the electrostatic grip," said Herbert Shea, coauthor of the study.

The findings of this study were published in Advanced Materials.

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