Robotic Gripper Runs On Coffee… And Balloons

There should be an image here!The human hand is an amazing machine that can pick up, move and place objects easily, but for a robot, this “gripping” mechanism is a vexing challenge. Opting for simple elegance, researchers from Cornell University, University of Chicago and iRobot have bypassed traditional designs based around the human hand and fingers, and created a versatile gripper using everyday ground coffee and a latex party balloon.

They call it a universal gripper, as it conforms to the object it’s grabbing rather than being designed for particular objects, said Hod Lipson, Cornell associate professor of mechanical engineering and computer science. The research is a collaboration between the groups of Lipson, Heinrich Jaeger at the University of Chicago, and Chris Jones at iRobot Corp. It is published today (Oct. 25) online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is one of the closest things we’ve ever done that could be on the market tomorrow,” Lipson said. He noted that the universality of the gripper makes future applications seemingly limitless, from the military using it to dismantle explosive devises or to move potentially dangerous objects, robotic arms in factories, on the feet of a robot that could walk on walls, or on prosthetic limbs.

Here’s how it works: An everyday party balloon filled with ground coffee — any variety will do — is attached to a robotic arm. The coffee-filled balloon presses down and deforms around the desired object, and then a vacuum sucks the air out of the balloon, solidifying its grip. When the vacuum is released, the balloon becomes soft again, and the gripper lets go.

Jaeger said coffee is an example of a particulate material, which is characterized by large aggregates of individually solid particles. Particulate materials have a so-called jamming transition, which turns their behavior from fluid-like to solid-like when the particles can no longer slide past each other.

This phenomenon is familiar to coffee drinkers familiar with vacuum-packed coffee, which is hard as a brick until the package is unsealed.

“The ground coffee grains are like lots of small gears,” Lipson said. “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.”

Jaeger explains that the concept of a “jamming transition” provides a unified framework for understanding and predicting behavior in a wide range of disordered, amorphous materials. All of these materials can be driven into a ‘glassy’ state where they respond like a solid yet structurally resemble a liquid, and this includes many liquids, colloids, emulsions or foams, as well as particulate matter consisting of macroscopic grains.

“What is particularly neat with the gripper is that here we have a case where a new concept in basic science provided a fresh perspective in a very different area — robotics — and then opened the door to applications none of us had originally thought about,” Jaeger said.

Eric Brown, a postdoctoral researcher, and Nick Rodenberg, a physics undergraduate, worked with Jaeger on characterizing the basic mechanisms that enable the gripping action. Prototypes of the gripper were built and tested by Lipson and Cornell graduate student John Amend as well as at iRobot.

As for the right particulate material, anything that can jam will do in principle, and early prototypes involved rice, couscous and even ground- up tires. They settled on coffee because it’s light but also jams well, Amend said. Sand did better on jamming but was prohibitively heavy. What sets the jamming-based gripper apart is its good performance with almost any object, including a raw egg or a coin — both notoriously difficult for traditional robotic grippers.

[Photo above by Ben Ostrowsky / CC BY-ND 2.0]

Blaine Friedlander @ Cornell University

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Football Playing Robots Have The Future Of Artificial Intelligence At Their Feet

There should be an image here!The new Premier League season has begun and in Madrid the World Cup celebrations are barely over, yet according to research in WIREs Cognitive Science the world’s best players may soon be facing a new challenge from football playing robots, which their creators claim will be able to play and beat a human team. The research reveals how building robots to play football is driving the development of artificial intelligence and robotic technology which can be used for roles including search and rescue and home help.

The author, Claude Sammut, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems in Sydney, reviewed the technology demonstrated at the RoboCup international robot soccer competition which this year took place in Singapore. Competitions have become a popular way for motivating innovations in robotics and provide teams of scientists with a way of comparing and testing new methods of programming artificial intelligence (AI).

“Football is a useful task for scientists developing robotic artificial intelligence because it requires the robot to perceive its environment, to use its sensors to build a model of that environment and then use that data to reason and take appropriate actions,” said Sammut. “On a football pitch that environment is rapidly changing and unpredictable requiring a robot to swiftly perceive, reason, act and interact accordingly.”

As with human players football also demands communication and cooperation between robotic players and crucially requires the ability to learn, as teams adjust their tactics to better take on their opponents.

Aside from football the competition also includes leagues for urban search and rescue and robotic home helpers which take place in areas simulating collapsed buildings and residential homes, revealing the multiple use of this technology.

While a football pitch layout is structured and known in advance, a search and rescue environment is highly unstructured and so the competition’s rescue arena presents developers with a new set of challenges. On the football pitch the robots are able to localize and orientate themselves by recognising landmarks such as the goal post, yet in a rescue situation such localization is extremely difficult, meaning that the robot has to simultaneously map its environment while reacting and interacting to the surroundings.

In the home help competitions the robot is programmed to recognise appliances and landmarks which will be common in most homes, but in addition to orientating themselves they must react and interact with humans.

As the robotic technology continues to develop the rules of the competitions are altered and made harder to encourage innovation, it is the organisers’ aim that this will drive the technology to a level where the football playing robots could challenge a human team.

“In 1968 John McCarthy and Donald Michie made a bet with chess champion David Levy that within 10 years a computer program could beat him,” concluded Sammut. “It took a bit longer but eventually such programs came into being. It is in that same spirit of a great challenge that RoboCup aims, by the year 2050, to develop a team of fully autonomous robots that can win against the human world soccer champion team.”

So while, for the moment, football players can focus on beating each other to lift silverware, tomorrow they may be facing a very different challenge.

Ben Norman @ Wiley-Blackwell

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Robot Building For Beginners, Second Edition

There should be an image here!Robot Building for Beginners, Second Edition is an update of David Cook’s best-selling Robot Building for Beginners. This book continues its aim at teenagers and adults who have an avid interest in science and dream of building household explorers. No formal engineering education is assumed.

The robot described and built in this book is battery powered and about the size of a lunchbox. It is autonomous. That is, it isn’t remote controlled.

You’ll begin with some tools of the trade, and then work your way through prototyping, robot bodybuilding, and eventually soldering your own circuit boards. By the book’s end, you will have a solid amateur base of understanding so that you can begin creating your own robots to vacuum your house or maybe even rule the world!

What you’ll learn:

  • How to build a robot from scratch
  • Where to obtain parts and tools to get you started
  • How to build the brain—the intelligence—using the motherboard
  • How to create the body and become a Dr. Frankenstein
  • How to get your robot moving and ruling

Who is this book for?

This book is aimed at teenagers and adults who have an avid interest in science and dream of building household explorers. No formal engineering education is assumed.