May 18, 2012 at 3:01 PM ET
Robotics engineers have turned to the almighty elephant trunk for their latest inspiration in the field of jamming, an actuation technique that employs rubber tubing, vacuum suction and coffee grounds to get a grip on stuff.
The trunk-like manipulator is similar to the hoop-playing robot we pointed out earlier this year that uses a squishy balloon filled with coffee grounds to grab an object, grip it, and toss it.
The gripping — or jamming — function comes as air is sucked out of the balloon, allowing it to conform to whatever it touches.
In the case of the elephant trunk, developed the Robotic Mobility Group at MIT, several coffee-ground-filled, balloon-like rubber tubes are connected in series, each one with a separate vacuum valve. This means that individual sections can grip an object while the rest of the trunk remains flexible.
Four control cables allow for the maneuverability of the entire trunk. Combined with selective jamming, this allows for elephant-like manipulation.
The process of jamming each segment — going from soft to rigid — takes 0.2 seconds, as illustrated in the video below. As IEEE notes, the video is “rather curious looking.”
— Via IEEE
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.