Five fingers at the end of an arm has turned out to be a fantastic tool for humans, but coordinating so many digits is a lot to ask of a robot. So inspired by the stretchy tongue on a gecko, engineers at Festo have come with a bulbous-looking water-filled gripper that's just as adept at picking things up as the human hand is.

There have actually been grippers that function similar to Festo's FlexShapeGripper before, but they use a soft material filled with small granular particles to change shape. Festo's silicon gripper instead features a pressurized double-chambered designed filled with water and air. As varying amounts of liquid and gas are pumped into those chambers using pneumatics, the gripper changes shape allowing it to grasp, pick up, and hold onto objects.

The gripper appears dextrous enough to be able to pick up everything from small ball bearings, to mugs using the handle, to even something as delicate as a pair of glasses. And like an e-ink display that can maintain an image even when the battery is dead, once Festo's gripper has grabbed hold of an object it can maintain its grip indefinitely without requiring any additional power. That results in a more energy efficient arm which can mean big cost savings over time in a factory full of robots working away. [Festo via IEEE Spectrum]