Most robots on a factory floor are equipped with large pincers or claws to grab an object and place it somewhere else in an assembly line. Engineers at MIT have now hit upon a way to impart more dexterity to simple robotic grippers: using the environment as a helping hand. The team developed a model that predicts the force with which a robotic gripper needs to push against various fixtures in the environment in order to adjust its grasp on an object.

A robot grips a rod lightly while pushing it against a tabletop. This allows the rod to rotate in the robot’s fingers. (MIT News)

For instance, if a robotic gripper aims to pick up a pencil at its midpoint, but instead grabs hold of the eraser end, it could use the environment to adjust its grasp. Instead of releasing the pencil and trying again, Rodriguez’s model enables a robot to loosen its grip slightly, and push the pencil against a nearby wall, just enough to slide the robot’s gripper closer to the pencil’s midpoint.

With the new approach, existing robots in manufacturing, medicine, disaster response, and other gripper-based applications may interact with the environment, in a cost-effective way, to perform more complex maneuvers. The team is looking for ways in which a robot might use gravity to toss and catch an object, as well as how surfaces like a tabletop may help a robot roll an object between its fingers.