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DARPA fashions miracle robotic attachment from balloon, coffee

Sucking makes rubber-clad appendage go hard

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Topflight robotics boffins in the States have developed a nifty new accessory that no droid should be without - a squashy "gripper" manipulator which can be fashioned out of ground coffee and a party balloon.

Credit: John Amend

The manipulator works by pressing the soft balloon full of loose coffee grounds down on the object to be gripped. Then the air is sucked out of the balloon, causing the coffee granules to press together and lock into a rigid shape - just as they do when vacuum-packed. The object is now securely grasped by the manipulator, and can be released as desired by ending the suction on the granule-filled bulb.

According to professor Hod Lipson, one of the boffins working on the device, it "could be on the market tomorrow".

"The ground coffee grains are like lots of small gears," adds the prof. "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."

The coffee-balloon grasp-o-matic research was carried out at academic labs in Chicago and New York state, and private ones belonging to famous automation firm iRobot, well known as the manufacturer of the Roomba prowler-cleaning machines and as purveyor of war droids to the US military.

Apparently various types of granular material were tried out for the gripper, including rice, couscous and ground-up car tyres. Sand was apparently even grippier than coffee, but "prohibitively heavy".

It will not surprise regular readers to note that the research was funded by Pentagon boffinry-wackiness bureau DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Anyone familiar with the modus operandi of that agency will know that its programme managers, furnished with some coffee, are much more likely to consider fashioning a robotic hand from it than do anything so mundane as use it to make a refreshing beverage.

We look forward keenly to more robots assembled from common household or office items in coming years. The scholarly paper by the coffee-grasp inventors can be read by subscribers to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences here. ®

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