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Punyo is a soft robot from TRI designed for whole-body manipulation

Toyota Research Institute (TRI) recently unveiled an unconventional humanoid robot that could redefine the future of automation. Dubbed "Punyo", the robot diverges from the typical stiff humanoid mold, instead employing soft materials and tactile sensing to enable more dexterous, full-body object manipulation.



Unlike most existing humanoids limited to rigid arms and simple grippers, Punyo is enveloped by an exterior layer of compliant air-filled bubbles. This soft sleeve can conform to objects, while embedded pressure sensors provide haptic feedback analogous to human touch. Such skin-like tactile sensation allows Punyo to adapt its posture when carrying items, relieving arm strain by bracing loads against its torso.


The hybrid approach combines the precision of classic robots with the resilience and sensing potential of soft robotics. Punyo's manipulators lack traditional grippers, using high-friction latex “paws” with interior cameras that trace surface deformations to estimate grasp forces. This nuanced force and contact data enables advanced in-hand manipulation skills.


Punyo employs two innovative learning techniques to master full-body object handling – “diffusion policy learning” based on human demonstrations, and simulation-driven reinforcement learning guided by motion planning datasets. The latter also draws on adversarial priors to infuse natural human movement styles. Together, these methods help Punyo perform robust real-world tasks ranging from opening doors while carrying objects, to tactile surface exploration.


Looking ahead, TRI aims to enhance Punyo's capabilities to assist people with everyday household and industrial chores. Its supple frame minimizes safety concerns amidst human collaboration, while boosting reliability via expanded sensing coverage. Such attributes could enable Punyo to handle fragile objects without explicit environment modeling.


By venturing beyond traditional humanoid architectures using soft components, Punyo constitutes an ambitious foray into the next phase of robotic manipulation research. The project signals a paradigm shift from narrow AI towards holistic intelligence – mastering real-world sensorimotor skills via human-guided learning as opposed to just optimizing individual subproblems. With further advances, intuitively intelligent and helpful automatons like Punyo may soon become a mainstay across our homes and workplaces.

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