A close-up of the hand performing a highly hyperextended pinch on only the top surface of an egg. (Credit: Biomimetics and Dextrous Manipulation Lab).

A new robotic hand is capable of handling a wide variety of items, including raw eggs, bunches of grapes, plates, jugs of liquids, basketballs, and even an angle grinder.

The device, called FarmHand, benefits from two kinds of biological inspiration. While the multi-jointed fingers are reminiscent of a human hand — albeit a four-fingered one — the fingers are topped with gecko-inspired adhesives. This grippy but not sticky material is based on the structure of gecko toes.

The gecko adhesive creates a strong hold via microscopic flaps. When in full contact with a surface, these flaps create a Van der Waals force — a weak intermolecular force that results from subtle differences in the positions of electrons on the out-sides of molecules. As a result, the adhesives can grip strongly but require little actual force to do so. Another bonus: they don’t feel sticky to the touch or leave a residue behind.

Below the adhesives, the finger pads are made of a collapsible rib structure that buckles with little force. No matter the location or angle of contact, the ribs consistently buckle so as to ensure equal forces on the adhesive pads and prevent any single one from slipping prematurely.

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