Your Tax Dollars at Work, Squishy Dextrous Edition.

If robots are ever going to do all our housework and pick up all our garbage, they're going to need to improve their dexterity. The human hand is a marvel of coordination, strength, and subtlety. Figuring out how to produce robot hands that can do anything like what a human hand can do has been a famously difficult engineering challenge.

But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on it, and now some scientists working with a DARPA grant have come up with a marvelously low-tech and creative solution, as Popular Science tells us:

Working with funds from DARPA, researchers at Cornell University, the University of Chicago and iRobot came up with an ideal robotic gripping device, simply a latex party balloon filled with ground coffee...

It takes advantage of a physical phenomenon called jamming transition. When particles (like coffee grounds) are so densely packed that they can no longer slide past each other, they behave like a solid. When they’re loosely packed, they behave like a liquid....

An everyday party balloon is filled with ground coffee and attached to a robotic arm. The balloon presses down and deforms around an object, and then a vacuum sucks the air out of the balloon, solidifying its grip with just the right shape and pressure. When you want to let go, release the vacuum, and the balloon becomes soft again.

Watch the video, and tell me we shouldn't be devoting at least 50 percent of our defense budget to developing increasingly awesome robots.

-- Paul Waldman

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