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It can sometimes be tough to grasp just how quickly advances are happening in robotics, whether it’s taking place on a warehouse floor or via an artificially intelligent dog that has learned how to open a door. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Harvard University deserve a hand for what they’ve developed.

In a paper released Thursday, researchers detail a robot with an origami-inspired gripper that has the combined qualities of softness and strength that enable it to lift a range of heavy, large, and unusually-shaped objects.

In watching the video above, the implications are immediately clear: Amazon could use this to further revolutionize the way it picks, sorts and packs boxes in its fulfillment centers around the world. The tech giant is already obviously very bullish on robots lifting objects and moving boxes around warehouses. And patents often reveal just what the company is thinking when it comes to how robots could be further employed.

“Companies like Amazon and [Chinese e-commerce giant] JD want to be able to pick up a wider array of delicate or irregular-shaped objects, but can’t with finger-based and suction-cup grippers,” said Shuguang Li, a joint postdoc at MIT CSAIL and Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “Suction-cups can’t pick up anything with holes — and they’d need something much stronger than a soft-finger-based gripper.”

The robot gripper can grasp and lift objects 70 percent of its diameter, which allows it to pick up and hold a variety of soft foods without causing damage. It can also pick up bottles weighing over four pounds. (MIT CSAIL Photo / Jason Dorfman)

According to MIT CSAIL, the new structure collapses in on objects, much like a Venus flytrap, to pick up items that are as much as 100 times its weight. Cone-shaped, hollow, and vacuum-powered, it was inspired by the “origami magic ball” and can envelope an entire object and successfully pick it up, grabbing everything from soup cans to hammers, wine glasses to drones, and even a single broccoli floret.

The gripper has three parts: the origami-based skeleton structure, the airtight skin to encase the structure, and the connector. The team created it using a mechanical rubber mold and a special heat-shrinking plastic that self-folds at high temperatures.

“One of my moonshots is to create a robot that can automatically pack groceries for you,” said MIT professor Daniela Rus, director of CSAIL and one of the senior authors of the paper about the project.

The new structure is a significant advancement beyond older robots which rely on coded movements and placements, and it outperforms today’s more intelligent robots which are still working with rigid hands on predefined shapes. According to MIT CSAIL, the team hopes to try to solve the problem of angle and orientation by adding computer vision that would let the gripper “see” and make it possible to grasp specific parts of objects.

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