They’ve beaten us at Jeopardy, taken our manufacturing jobs and now robots are coming for the one thing many of us hold dear — the ability to win at pointless bar games. Okay, so that’s not what the universal jamming gripper is meant for, but you still wouldn’t want to face off against it in a game of darts or pop-a-shot basketball.
This robotic gripper was actually built to solve a problem that has confounded many robots in uncontrolled environments: how to best pick up objects when you have no idea how big the object will be or what it will be shaped like.
Robots in factories don’t face this problem. They are programmed and calibrated to pick up the same-sized part again and again. In a messy home or out on the battlefield, things are much different. A robot arm that can quickly pick something up, no matter what it is, is invaluable.
How does the universal jamming gripper do this? By utilizing a latex balloon filled with coffee grounds.
“We use coffee grounds because they’re lightweight. When they’re unjammed they flow around nicely and when they are jammed they harden up really well,” explained John Amend, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University who helped start the project back in 2009. “Another nice thing about coffee is that it’s super-cheap. It’s hard to argue with the price.”
Basically, the loose coffee grounds conform to an object and when the air is sucked out, a pinching effect occurs that uses friction to lift it up. The process is so delicate that the gripper can pick up an egg without breaking it and so strong that it once lifted a pool ball attached to a gallon of water.
The team discovered the gripper’s unique dart-shooting ability by accident.
Last year, when it tried to pick up multiple objects in a row, sometimes the coffee grounds would get stuck in their compacted form, not allowing the gripper to get a seal on the next object. The solution was to blow air back out — to hit the reset button, more or less, by returning the grounds to their original position. The fact that it could now shoot objects into the air with great accuracy was just a happy coincidence.
In the future, the jamming gripper could be used to do everything from ejecting your garbage into separate bins to disposing hazardous materials at disaster sites. We’ll leave it to Cornell’s undergrad population to ruminate on its beer pong capabilities.