Most people routinely pick up hundreds of objects during a typical day, and they never give a second thought. For mechanical devices — such as robots or powered prosthetics — gripping objects of different sorts can pose a serious challenge. And if the object is fragile like an egg, the problem becomes much more complex. We’ve written about work at Harvard’s Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering with 3D printed soft robotic actuators that detect pressure and temperature a three-fingered gripper. We also noted Touch Bionics’ i-limb prosthetic hands that respond to multiple inputs.

Computer scientists at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) are working on a project that requires a robotic arm that can grip, lift, and pack a wide variety of objects, as would be required to pack a bag of groceries. The latest development in the project is the Magic Ball gripper, a cone-shaped, origami-like device that collapses to fit any object shape and can lift up to 100 times its weight. The Magic Ball device uses vacuum power to hold and lift objects. The gripper has three components: a 3-D printed, self-folding skeleton structure, an airtight skin, and a connector. The Magic Ball device currently has the best results with cylindrical objects like soup cans and the greatest trouble picking up flat objects like a book.

As the CSAIL team continues work on the Magic Ball gripper, the next tasks include adding computer vision to help the robot know where and how to grasp objects. The overall goal is a robot with the strength and dexterity to perform tasks ranging from lifting a hospital patient to picking a rose.