Engineers in the Stanford University Biomimetics and Dextrous Manipulation Lab may not talk to the animals like Doctor Dolittle, but they do learn from other species. Stanford graduate students recently published a paper in Science Robotics detailing their work developing a robotic hand that is “both dextrous and strong at the same time.” The key contribution from the animal kingdom in Stanford’s FarmHand is an adhesive based on gecko toes. The adhesive grips without sticking, according to the engineers. They spent the past 10 years developing the gecko-inspired technology that enables a grasp with delicate strength.

We’ve written about work on robotic grip before. Researchers at the City University of Hong Kong, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Southern University of Science and Technology developed a robotic gripper that “feels” what it’s holding. Engineers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney, study anatomical aspects of the elephant’s trunk, snakes, and octopuses for inspiration in their work with robotic gripping.

In this case, the Stanford engineers combined a four-finger human-style hand with the gecko-like grippy-but-not-sticky adhesive on the tips of the fingers. According to Mark Cutkosky, the senior author of the research and the Fletcher Jones Professor in the School of Engineering, the FarmHand can handle a wide range of items and materials such as raw eggs, bunches of grapes, plates, jugs of liquid, basketballs, and even an angle grinder. Part of the solution to the challenge of hands that are strong but still capable of manipulating delicate objects is the structure just under the robotic “skin.” The Stanford team created a collapsible rib structure that buckles easily and consistently. The work involved extensive computer simulations with software that didn’t exist even five years ago. Next steps for the Stanford engineers include building in feedback mechanisms to aid understanding of how the robotic hands grip and how they can improve. The team is also interested in exploring potential commercial applications for the gecko-grip.