Robot Hand Design Is Full of Beans

November 24, 2010

Just when you thought they’d found the most innovative use for coffee, someone comes along to go one better. Rebecca Boyle reported on the Popular Science website that researchers funded by the Defense department came up with KONA. That’s not Hawaiian Kona coffee, but it IS coffee - ground beans anyway.

As a filler for a robot’s hands, ground coffee beans won out over sand, couscous, rice and ground up tires. They also smelled better. Regardless, it turns out that dry coffee grounds, like other similar particles, jam well. Though any brand will work the same, the researchers chose a Hawaiian blend –Kona? When densely packed into a small area, like a latex balloon, the grounds act like a solid, but when loosely packed they act like a liquid. This is a scientific phenomenon called the jamming transition. Think: coffee brick. When you buy it from the store, it’s as hard as a rock, but as soon as you cut into the package the air moving to the inside causes the grounds to slide around.

KONA (Kinetic Object grippiNg Arm) works the same way. The catch is, you have to attach the opening of the sack to an arm with a vacuum in it. The vacuum sucks the air out, making the beans brick up, and then the vacuum is released, making the beans, and the hand, go slack. So KONA gets air until it’s positioned around the object to be picked up, then the air is sucked out, making the balloon harden around the object, and the robot picks it up. To let go, air moving back into the balloon causes it to go slack and out falls the object.

This is amazing - watch the movie. Go to http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2010-10/coffee-filled-balloon-m... .

You’re probably thinking right now, that’s OK, so all this works, but what’s the purpose? The researchers, and presumably the US Defense Dept, needed a robotic hand that could pick up a variety of small objects which so far have eluded robotic hands. Now KONA can pick up anything, so watch out! If you see a robot who has the hint of Hawaiian coffee aroma about it, you’ll know it’s the robot from the DOD.

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