Monday, December 6, 2010

Robotic Gripper: Replacing Fingers With Balloons

You wake up every morning and pour yourself a hot cup of coffee, probably ignoring the physics behind what you are actually doing (I don’t blame you, the only thing i think about is going back to bed). Well had you not, you could have had the next million dollar idea that is revolutionizing modern robotics. The main ingredients consist of two things, coffee grounds, and a balloon. 

Cornell University invented the idea as a replacement for robotic hands. The problem with previous robotic hands are that they had to be extremely articulated; something which had proven a challenge when doing tasks that require grace, or precision. The balloon (as seen by the picture) is able to lift objects, as well as carry them with a very high success rate. These robotic balloon hands were able to lift objects as delicate as an egg, or as small and difficult as a coin. “So how does this work” you are asking, “how are coffee grounds, and balloons able to do all of this?” 

Well, the balloon stretches, allowing both the coffee grounds, and air inside. When the balloon is partially inflated, it can stretch around objects (much like when you were a kid, and shoved your face into your balloons because it would form to your face). But when the air is removed, the shape stays, and contours to the object that is being lifted. The coffee grounds act as ‘small gears’ that lock together; so the conformed shape stays. This also creates a vacuum between the object and the ‘hand’ so that there is almost no chance of slippage. Pretty simple idea, no?

So next time you do something simple like, make coffee, or blow up a balloon, think about what it’s actually doing - because who knows what will revolutionize the robotic world next. And I bet whatever it is, it won’t top the weirdness of a humanoid robot with balloon hands (seriously, it’s a pretty creepy thought). 

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