Scientists at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Lausanne, Switzerland, say that their research into soft electronics for a new type of gripper can change the way robots can touch and pick up delicate objects like eggs and paper. This lightweight gripper could be incorporated into prosthetic hands, they explain.

The new soft gripper uses electrostatic stickiness called electroadhesion whereby five-layer flexible electrode flaps act like a thumb-index gripper, allowing the gripper to pick up fragile objects of arbitrary shape and stiffness, like an egg, a water balloon, or even paper.

When the voltage is turned on, the electrodes bend towards the object to be picked up, imitating muscle function. The tip of the electrodes act like fingertips that gently conform to the shape of the object, gripping onto it with electrostatic forces in the same way that static can make a balloon stick to a wall. The electrodes can carry 80 times its own weight and no prior knowledge about the object’s shape is necessary.

In comparison, other soft grippers are either pneumatically controlled or fail at picking up fragile objects without telling the gripper beforehand about the object's shape. They also have been unable able to handle flat or deformable objects.