'Universal' robotic hand runs on coffee and party balloons!

Last Updated: Tue, Oct 26, 2010 07:20 hrs

Researchers from Cornell University, University of Chicago and iRobot have created a versatile robotic gripper using ground coffee and a latex party balloon.

They call it a universal gripper, as it conforms to the object it's grabbing rather than being designed for particular objects, said Hod Lipson.

"This is one of the closest things we've ever done that could be on the market tomorrow," said Lipson, who worked in collaboration with Heinrich Jaeger at the University of Chicago, and Chris Jones at iRobot Corp.

The robot hand's applications are limitless - from the military using it to dismantle explosive devises or to move potentially dangerous objects, robotic arms in factories, on the feet of a robot that could walk on walls, or on prosthetic limbs.

An everyday party balloon filled with ground coffee is attached to a robotic arm. The coffee-filled balloon presses down and deforms around the desired object, and then a vacuum sucks the air out of the balloon, solidifying its grip. When the vacuum is released, the balloon becomes soft again, and the gripper lets go.

Why coffee? Because its particles have a so-called jamming transition, which turns their behaviour from fluid-like to solid-like when the particles can no longer slide past each other.

"When they are not pressed together they can roll over each other and flow. When they are pressed together just a little bit, the teeth interlock, and they become solid," said Lipson.

Actually, anything that can jam will do in principle, and early prototypes involved rice, couscous and even ground- up tires.

They settled on coffee because it's light but also jams well. What sets the jamming-based gripper apart is its good performance with almost any object, including a raw egg or a coin - both notoriously difficult for traditional robotic grippers.

The article was published on Oct. 25 online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (ANI)

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