Soft grippers are known for their ability to interact with objects that are fragile, soft or of an unknown shape, as well as humans in collaborative robotics applications. However, state-of-the-art soft grippers lack either payload capacity or durability, which limits their use in industrial applications. In fact, high force density pneumatic soft grippers require high strain and operating pressure, both of which impair their durability. This work presents a new sleeved bending actuator for soft grippers that is capable of high force density and durability. The proposed actuator is based on design principles previously proven to improve the life of pneumatic artificial muscles, where a sleeve provides a uniform reinforcement that reduces local stresses and strains in the inflated membrane. The sleeved bending actuator features a silicone membrane and an external two-material sleeve that can support high pressures while providing a flexible grip. The proposed sleeved bending actuators are validated through two grippers, sized according to foreseen soft gripper applications: A small gripper for drone perching and lightweight food manipulation, and a larger one for the manipulation of heavy material (>5 kg) of various weights and sizes. Performance assessment shows that these grippers have payloads up to 5.2 kg and 20 kg, respectively. Durability testing of the grippers demonstrates that the grippers have an expected lifetime ranging from 263,000 cycles to more than 700,000 cycles. The grippers are tested in various settings, including the integration of a gripper into a Phantom 2 quadcopter, a perching demonstration, as well as the gripping of light and heavy food items. Experiments show that sleeved bending actuators constitute a promising avenue for durable and strong soft grippers.
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