Jamming Robot Gripper Grows Some Legs
You remember that incredibly awesome jamming gripper, right? Well, it's grown six legs and learned how to walk.
This is the Jamming Modulated Unimorph Hexapod (aka JHEX), a prototype soft robot that's based on the coffee grounds and balloon system developed by iRobot, Cornell University, and the University of Chicago. The basic idea behind the whole jammin' thing is that by changing the pressure inside a flexible container filled with a granulated material, you can make the particles of the material either flow around each other or "jam" together, causing the container to transition between softness and rigidity. JHEX can walk by switching its legs between these soft and rigid states, or it can go from completely rigid to completely soft.
Here's a video (of a video) showing the thing crawling:
The goal of the Chemical Robots (ChemBots) program is to create a new class of soft, flexible, meso-scale mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their dimensions and perform tasks once entry is gained. The program seeks to develop a ChemBot that can perform several operations in sequence. It should travel a specified distance and traverse an arbitrarily shaped opening much smaller than the largest characteristic of the robot itself. Once through the opening, it will reconstitute its size, shape, and functionality and travel again to perform a task using an embedded payload.
Just about all of the Chembot prototypes that we've met have been tethered to a power source (like compressed air), which means that you've got a way to disable these things if they start oozing (or jamming) towards you. Getting power sources and payloads onboard the robots themselves isn't going to be easy, but honestly, based on the creativity and progress that we've seen so far, we're fairly optimistic that DARPA will get what it wants, and we'll have something new to feel vaguely uncomfortable about.