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See an elephant-inspired robotic gripper pick up a single grape like a pro

The soft fabric gripper borrows its clever design from elephant trunks and octopus arms.

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UNSW engineering researchers created a soft fabric robotic gripper inspired by nature.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Elephants have amazing trunks. They can pick up small sticks and giant logs with dexterity and ease. That same curling design inspired researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney to create a robotic gripper that can grasp everything from a syringe to a hammer. 

"Our new soft fabric gripper is thin, flat, lightweight and can grip and retrieve various objects – even from confined hollow spaces – for example, a pen inside a tube," said medical robotics expert Thanh Nho Do in a UNSW statement on Monday. Do is co-author of a paper on the gripper published in the Advanced Materials Technologies journal last week.

UNSW shared a video of a prototype in action wrapping itself around a variety of objects, including a screwdriver, a hand saw, a cucumber and even a single grape. Its flexibility and sensitivity mean it can be used to handle delicate and fragile objects without crushing them.

While the robotic gadget looks simple, there's a lot of technology packed into the little device. The gripper uses a force sensor to apply just the right amount of pressure to an object. 

"There is also a thermally activated mechanism that can change the gripper body from flexible to stiff and vice versa, enabling it to grasp and hold objects of various shapes and weights -- up to 220 times heavier than the gripper's mass," Do said.

The team is now working on attaching the gripper to robotic arms. Pairing the gripper with a haptic glove would let human operators feel what the robot does. The device could be available commercially within two years.

We've seen a boom in nature-inspired robotic innovations in recent years, everything from Boston Dynamics' dog-like Spot robot to an octopus-like robotic tentacle from Harvard. Our future robot overlords may look a lot like an animal menagerie.