"The goal of our lab is to try to make very minimalistic robots which, when deployed in high numbers, can still accomplish great things," said Kirstin Petersen, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering who runs Cornell's Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab. "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."
"Popcorn-Driven Robotic Actuators," presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation and co-authored by Petersen and Steven Ceron, a mechanical engineering doctoral student, examines how popcorn kernels could potentially power miniature jumping robots. The mix of hard, unpopped granules and lighter popped corn could replace fluids in soft robots without the need for air pumps or compressors.
"Pumps and compressors tend to be more expensive, and they add a lot of weight and expense to your robot," said Ceron. "With popcorn, in some of the demonstrations that we showed, you just need to apply voltage to get the kernels to pop, so it would take all the bulky and expensive parts out of the robots."
For a jamming actuator, 36 kernels of popcorn heated with nichrome wire were used to stiffen a flexible silicone beam. For an elastomer actuator, they constructed a three-fingered soft gripper, whose silicone fingers were stuffed with popcorn heated by nichrome wire. When the kernels popped, the expansion exerted pressure against the outer walls of the fingers, causing them to curl.
"Robotics is really good at embracing new ideas, and we can be super creative about what we use to generate multifunctional properties," said Petersen. "In the end we come up with very simple solutions to fairly complex problems."