A soft, gripping device that can sense and pick up objects, mimicking the Venus flytrap, is described in Nature Communications this week. Such a simple soft robot capable of identifying its targets may be ideal for autonomous handling of delicate objects.
Soft robots are promising for providing safe, human-friendly contact; however, automation of such devices has been challenging. One way to address this problem is to use materials that change shape in response to a light stimulus, but previous efforts to exploit these materials have required external illumination.
Arri Priimagi and colleagues combine a light-responsive liquid crystal elastomer with an optical fibre to overcome the need for external activation. The optical fibre illuminates the target object and the reflected light induces bending in the liquid crystal elastomer. As the responsive material bends, it is able to grip micro-objects of any shape; for example, it can capture “artificial insects” (in the form of light-scattering particles) that enter its field of view. The device is capable of gripping items with a mass hundreds of times larger than the mass of the device. Once the light is turned off, the object is released.
This self-regulating, optically driven device is able to autonomously recognise different objects and could provide a pathway to intelligent micro-robotics.