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Engineers from Iowa State University developed micro-tentacles that enable robots to handle delicate objects.

“Most robots use two fingers. To pick things up, they have to squeeze,” said Jaeyoun (Jay) Kim, an Iowa State University associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory. “But these tentacles wrap around very gently.”

Kim and the engineers fabricated microtubes that measured 8 millimeters long and less than a hundredth of an inch wide. The life-like, multi-turn spiraling motion had previously only been reproduced by centimeter-scale tentacles. The microtubes are made from PDMS, a transparent elastomer that can be a liquid or a soft, rubbery solid.

The researchers sealed one end of the tube and pumped air in and out. The air pressure and the microtube’s asymmetrical wall thickness created a circular bend. A small lump of PDMS was added to the base of the tube to amplify the bend and create a two-turn spiraling, coiling action.

The technology will be valuable for medical applications, according to the Iowa state engineers, because the tentacles will not damage tissues or blood vessels.

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