Forward-looking: When we think of robot grippers, we tend to imagine large, pincher-style machines or those shaped like human hands, but a team from MIT has come up with something very different: a gripper that resembles a wilted tulip, which can pick up fragile objects and is also capable of lifting 120 times its own weight.

A joint project between MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Harvard, the robotic gripper uses a 3D-printed, 16-piece silicone rubber skeleton covered in either TPU-coated nylon fabric or a deflated, 27-inch latex rubber balloon.

A pneumatic vacuum sucks the air out of the skin, which causes it to collapse around an object. The technique allows the arm to pick up delicate items, such as soft fruit, without damaging them.

“Previous approaches to the packing problem could only handle very limited classes of objects — objects that are very light or objects that conform to shapes such as boxes and cylinders, but with the Magic Ball gripper system we’ve shown that we can do pick-and-place tasks for a large variety of items ranging from wine bottles to broccoli, grapes and eggs,” said MIT professor Daniela Rus. “In other words, heavy objects and objects that are light. Objects that are delicate, or sturdy, or that have regular or free form shapes.”

The shape of the gripper means it’s more suited to picking up round and cylindrical objects, but it could still have applications in a variety of fields, especially those where delicate objects are moved around, such as Amazon warehouses or even in hospitals.

“I could imagine seeing soft robots gentle and dexterous enough to pick a rose, yet strong enough to safely lift a hospital patient,” said Michael Wehner, an assistant professor of robotics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.