It turns out that the creators of the movie Big Hero 6 may have been onto something – inflatable robots might just be the way to go. If not their whole bodies, then at least their hands. Scientists at Disney Research have made steps in this direction, by creating inflatable graspers that excel at handling delicate objects without breaking them.

Researchers Joohyung Kim, Katsu Yamane and Alexander Alspach started by 3D-printing two soft polyurethane cylindrical modules, which were both rounded over at one end and open at the other. The open ends of each were placed over rigid robotic grasping tools, forming an airtight seal around their base. Air was then pumped into the modules via silicone tubes, causing them to inflate around the tools like balloons.

The graspers were subsequently used to pick up delicate objects such as a plastic cup, a rolled-up sheet of paper and a slab of tofu. As they did so, sensors within them measured the changes in air pressure that occurred as the force of the grasp increased. By tracking those changes, a computer was able to modulate the grasping force, allowing the graspers to maintain a grip on the objects without damaging them.

When the rigid grasping tools were used for the same task but without the inflatable modules surrounding them, they applied too much force and broke the cup.

It is hoped that the technology could ultimately find use not only in robotic "hands," but also in contact sensors that would let robots know if they were touching something (such as a person) before causing it any harm.

The graspers can be seen in use, in the following video.