Pill Bug Grippers and Innovation

Researchers have succeeded in using a 3-D printer to attach a pillbug to a robotic arm as a gripper. Dead spiders have previously been used as grippers, but these pillbug are alive.

Sure enough, you can attach a pillbug to a robotic arm and poke it down into a substance, and it will pick that substance up.

Now what? Is it going to stack the items in a pallet or pack it into a shipping container or rotate it into position for the next machine? Not likely.

This research seems to be a good example of research which is innovative, sure, but also pointless.

Is research ever pointless?

It’s clearly useful to work on incremental improvements in the gripper currently being used on a robot arm. There’s always a possibility of using less energy, of an adjustment that will make the gripper work better in a new context, or of a change that will increase efficiency in production. The resources put into this kind of research will almost certainly not be wasted, so it’s easy to argue for trying that kind of testing and research.

The other kind of research, the kind that begins with, “Hey! What if we stuck a live insect on a robot arm?!” — well, that sounds ridiculous. And maybe it is. But it might not be.

Do you know how brown tree snakes are managed in Guam? Probably not. Here’s the method that works best to keep down these invasive serpents and prevent them from hitching a ride to Hawaii and upsetting the national supply chain: stuff baby mice with acetaminophen and parachute them into trees with wee toy parachutes. The snakes eat them and die.

Who would have thought of that? What would you think if someone came out of the lab next to yours and said, “Hey! What if we parachuted baby mice stuffed with painkillers into trees in Guam?!”

This method was developed over time and a lot of the research that went into it probably was just incremental improvements, but some of it was probably actual innovation.

And innovation is sometimes weird.


New ideas don’t always strike like a thunderbolt out of the blue, but they are more likely to come about when people’s minds are free and active. They are more likely to come about when curiosity is encouraged and enjoyed. They are more likely to show up with fewer limits.

So the pillbug gripper idea may not be a winner. It may even be sort of creepy. But perhaps some spark from that wild idea could set off another idea, something that will be equally innovative and more practical. We’ll be watching with interest.