Picking up things is pretty sucky for robots, since so many complex variables are involved. And the more complicated the object, the more complicated the task of picking it up seems to be. This new type of robotic gripper can pick up all sorts of objects (the more complicated, the better) by using a technique called ‘jamming.’ Jamming is simple and effective: a balloon is filled with coffee grounds. When air is blown into the balloon, it expands slightly, the coffee grounds can move around a little bit, and the gripper can conform to complex objects. When air is sucked out of the balloon, the coffee grounds bind together, and the object is now firmly held. It’s basically a practical method of shape shifting. Cool!
The funny thing about jamming is that effectiveness of the grip is, in most cases, directly proportional to the complexity of the object. This means that flat, smooth objects like sheets of paper are pretty much impossible to pick up using jamming, which is the inverse of using a different technique like suction. Porous or squishable objects like cotton balls also don’t lend themselves to being gripped in this manner. But this is a small price to pay for being able to pick up more or less any object without having to first examine that object and calculate exactly how to go about doing it… Plus, a balloon and coffee grounds? Sounds pretty damn cheap to me.