Clever Apes #20: Reimagining Robots

October 19, 2011

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Heinrich Jaeger demonstrates the jamming effect, which led to a soft robot. (WBE

From industry to pop culture to the military, we’ve long been captivated by robots. We tend to imagine them as our mechanical mirror images – reflections of our most efficient, coldest selves. But some modern robots look more like a sack of flour than a person.

In the latest installment of Clever Apes, we visit an accidental roboticist who’s reimagining the most basic concepts of robotics. He’s taken the same principle that makes a vacuum-packed bag of coffee hard and bricklike, and translated it into a robot that might one day pick up your toddler’s toys or collect intelligence from an enemy bunker.

Listen to the episode:

The concept is called jamming, and it’s really simple. Suck the air out of a bag of granular material, and you reduce the room around each grain just enough that it can’t move past its neighbors. The whole thing seizes up, and behaves like a solid. Let out a little air, and it liquefies again. This works for ground coffee, ball bearings, molecules, even big objects like cars in a traffic jam.

Heinrich Jaeger's mushy robot can crumple, bulge and ooze. (Jaeger Laboratory, U

Heinrich Jaeger at the University of Chicago recognized the power of that phenomenon. You can effectively change a material from solid to liquid and back again without having to melt or freeze it. And it’s dirt cheap: indeed, you could use actual dirt. This probably has a ton of applications no one has thought of, but one of them that’s now underway is a soft robot. Jaeger, along with the company iRobot and colleagues at the University of North Carolina and Cornell University, are developing prototypes of a squishy soccer ball that can move, change shape, and may soon be able to pick up almost anything. It’s a fundamental change in thinking about robots. Instead of using “smart” components (like little nanobots equipped with microprocessors), Jaeger is making a shapeshifting robot with dumb particles of sand or plastic beads. The smarts emerge when all those particles work together.

Al Shilling looks after his robot, Rocket Al. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)

After dropping in on Jaeger’s lab (one of the more fun, freewheeling physics labs you’re likely to encounter), we pay a visit to the Chicago Area Robotics Club. There, robot enthusiasts are trying to harness robots’ inherent awesomeness to promote science and technology among young people. They’re also working on a curriculum for Boy Scouts looking to earn the new robotics merit badge, which was just introduced last spring. Great idea, Scouts … but maybe some clever ape can help you redesign the patch, eh?

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