An amazingly versatile robot hand, made of balloons and coffee grounds

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You'd think hands would be the hardest part of a robot to put together, with all those bones and tendons. But somebody's managed to create a new robot hand out of objects that you can find around the house.

The human hand is a fantastically complicated apparatus. Not only can each finger move, they can also twist, stretch, and curl to pick up an object. And don't even get me started on that hitch-hiker's thumb move. All in all, a hand is a tough act to follow, and so a group of researchers at Cornell, the University of Chicago, and iRobot corporation have decided not to try.

Instead of outfitting their robot gripper with a skeletal hand, they've given it a mush of coffee grounds, loosely contained by a balloon. The coffee grounds will go where most robotic hands cannot. When pressed against an object, they'll flow into the cracks, crevices and irregularities. Once they'd done that, the hand kicks into gear. Hod Lipson, of Cornell, describes the process:

The ground coffee grains are like lots of small gears. 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 robot is now solidly intertwined with the object, and can lift and carry it, until the vacuum is disengaged. Once it is, air flows back into the balloon, and the coffee grounds become a loose collection of particles again. This discovery could lead to market-ready grippers soon. More importantly, it could put a whole new spin on the Terminator franchise. Instead of Sarah Connor cringing away from a hand at the end of the first movie, she could have been cringing away from a balloon. And it would have been tough for Cyberdyne Systems to create the entire Terminator line from a balloon full of coffee grounds that they found in one of their factories.

I have no idea what it would mean for The Sarah Connor Chronicles, though.