What will power the next generation of robots: Electricity? Hydraulics, maybe? Nope, you’re way off. The latest development in robotics is, obviously, popcorn power.
This new development didn’t come out of the basement of a lone mad scientist, nor is it an abandoned side project of Willy Wonka. In fact, it’s the work of mechanical and electrical engineers from Cornell University’s Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab, who recently presented their paper on the soft robot at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.
Here’s how it works: A flexible silicone beam is stuffed full with 36 unpopped corn kernels and laced with a thin nichrome wire. As the nichrome wire heats up, the kernels begin to pop and rapidly expand in size. This expansion exerts pressure against the outer walls of the fingers and causes them to curl up, thereby grabbing any object placed beneath it.
“The goal of our lab is to try to make very minimalistic robots which, when deployed in high numbers, can still accomplish great things,” paper co-author Steven Ceron explained in a statement. “Simple robots are cheap and less prone to failures and wear, so we can have many operating autonomously over a long time. So we are always looking for new and innovative ideas that will permit us to have more functionalities for less, and popcorn is one of those.”
Ok, so it’s hardly a Boston Dynamics robot doing backflips like an Olympic gymnast. However, roboticists have always flirted with unorthodox power sources and methods. This project hoped to embrace that creative, off-the-wall spirit. The researchers also note that it's inexpensive, readily available, biodegradable, and, best of all, edible.
“Robotics is really good at embracing new ideas, and we can be super creative about what we use to generate multifunctional properties,” added Kirstin H Petersen, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “In the end we come up with very simple solutions to fairly complex problems. We don’t always have to look for high-tech solutions. Sometimes the answer is right in front of us.”