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In the world of robotics, we’ve often seen robots rely on their mechanical hands to pick up and manipulate objects. 

But that approach doesn’t quite capture the full essence of how humans interact with the world, especially when dealing with hefty items.

Enter Toyota’s groundbreaking creation, the Punyo soft robot. Unlike its traditional counterparts, Punyo takes inspiration from our own human behavior. 

Imagine a robot that doesn’t just use its hands but also incorporates its chest, hips and arms to handle objects — just like we do.

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Punyo, the soft robot  (Toyota Research Institute)

Punyo’s design

Punyo features a cute and approachable face reminiscent of Disney’s Baymax from Big Hero 6. But there’s more. Punyo appears to be wearing a cozy looking sweater, which serves a practical purpose. It’s highly hug-focused.

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Toyota’s Punyo soft robot  (Toyota Research Institute)

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The hug-focused sweater

The sweater-like covering is made from grippy materials that provide a squishy, compliant layer over Punyo’s hard metal skeleton. Embedded within the fabric are tactile sensors that allow Punyo to feel precisely what it’s hugging, whether it’s a person or an object.

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Toyota’s Punyo soft robot  at work (Toyota Research Institute)

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Punyo’s inflatable paws

Instead of traditional hands, Punyo has what Toyota calls “paws.” These aren’t your typical paws. They’re more like inflatable hooves. These paws have tiny dots printed on the inside. When the paw touches something, the dots distort, revealing the shape and force of contact. The clever camera captures this deformation, and the information is fed directly to the robot’s brain to help it grasp objects effectively.

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The Punyo soft robot has human characteristics (Toyota Research Institute)

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Punyo’s softness in the arms

Punyo’s arms are arrays of air-filled bubbles, air tubes and pressure sensors that extend from shoulder to wrist. These bubbles can be individually pressure regulated, allowing for optimal stiffness based on the task at hand.

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The Punyo soft robot lifts a box (Toyota Research Institute)

Training Punyo

Through teleoperation, Toyota Research Group roboticists have been training Punyo to handle various large objects. Some techniques include:

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The Punyo soft robot from Toyota (Toyota Research Institute)

The lean and lift: Punyo leans forward, hugs items to its ches and then leans back to lift them.

Heap it up: Punyo even has the ability to heap objects, making it versatile for different scenarios.

Creative carrying: Imagine slinging a water jug up onto Punyo’s shoulder, where it remains steady from above.

Kurt’s key takeaways

Punyo’s innovative design and emphasis on cuddling break new ground in soft robotics. Its gentle and precise grasp on large, awkward objects suggests exciting possibilities for robotic helpers in homes and other environments in the future.

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