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Clever Apes #20: Reimagining Robots

Heinrich Jaeger demonstrates the jamming effect, which led to a soft robot. (WBE
Heinrich Jaeger demonstrates the jamming effect, which led to a soft robot. (WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)

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's mushy robot can crumple, bulge and ooze. (Jaeger Laboratory, University of Chicago)

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)
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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