Credit: John Amend, Cornell University
It is tough picking things up; one has to coordinate fingers and get feedback. It is harder still to make a robotic hand that can master the complexities. We have a tendency build these things in our own image, what Fast Company calls "Terminator Style."
Heinrich Jaeger throws that out the window, and has built a hand that can pick up almost anything out of a balloon, coffee grounds and a vacuum pump.
Most current designs are based on the multifingered hand, but this approach introduces hardware and software complexities. These include large numbers of controllable joints, the need for force sensing if objects are to be handled securely without crushing them, and the computational overhead to decide how much stress each finger should apply and where.
Here we demonstrate a completely different approach to a universal gripper. Individual fingers are replaced by a single mass of granular material that, when pressed onto a target object, flows around it and conforms to its shape. Upon application of a vacuum the granular material contracts and hardens quickly to pinch and hold the object without requiring sensory feedback.
Its the simplicity that kills. The hand does exactly what a hand is supposed to do- pick things up without breaking them. It does away with all the complexity that comes from trying to mimic in metal what took millions of years to evolve. This is brilliant design.