Robotic Gripper Fueled by Coffee Grounds and Balloons

In a project supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, researchers from Cornell University, University of Chicago and iRobot have bypassed traditional designs based around the human hand and fingers, and created a versatile gripper using ground coffee and a latex balloon, according to a press release.

“They call it a universal gripper, as it conforms to the object it’s grabbing rather than being designed for particular objects,” Hod Lipson, Cornell associate professor of mechanical engineering and computer science, stated in a press release.

The research is a collaboration between the groups of Lipson, Heinrich Jaeger at the University of Chicago, and Chris Jones at iRobot Corp.

“This is one of the closest things we’ve ever done that could be on the market tomorrow,” Lipson stated noting that the universality of the gripper makes future applications 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.

To power the arm, a 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.

“The ground coffee grains are like lots of small gears,” Lipson stated. “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.”

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