Skip to main content

Cornell’s popcorn-powered robots are far more practical than they sound

Popcorn-Driven Robotic Actuators

Popcorn is tasty, easy to prepare, goes well with your favorite Saturday night movie, and … it could help power future robots? At least, that is the unorthodox conclusion of work coming out of Cornell University, where researchers have demonstrated how it is possible to use nothing more than popping kernels to make a robot mechanism, such as a gripper, spring into action.

“Our lab is interested in multi-functional designs that permit simple robots to achieve complex tasks,” Steven Ceron, a Ph.D. researcher in Mechanical Engineering at Cornell, told Digital Trends. “Specifically, we are looking for ways that soft robot collectives can build amorphous structures out of their own bodies inspired by multicellular slime mold. To do this, we need an inexpensive fluid that can change rigidity and potentially expand upon deployment. Popcorn successfully demonstrates these features.”

The downside of this method of actuating robots in this way is that popping is irreversible, giving it a big disadvantage compared to regular rechargeable batteries. While popcorn can’t be un-popped, however, the exhausted kernels can be easily dissolved using water, after which new kernels can be reinserted to begin the process again.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

On the positive side, popcorn kernels are also readily available at a very cheap price, and show some impressive physical attributes. For example, they pop with considerable strength, expand up to 15 times their original size, and change inter-granular friction by an order of magnitude. Kernels could additionally be used to make robots which are biodegradable since they wouldn’t leave behind a battery as they decompose.

In their demonstration, the Cornell researchers successfully showed off a variety of different ways to heat the popcorn. These included heating the air around the robot gripper to pop the corn, heating it via microwaves, or heating it using direct contact with a hot Nichrome wire. They showcased the mechanism working effectively with soft, compliant, and rigid-link robot grippers. In the future, they hope that demos such as this one will inspire other novel robotic mechanisms for a variety of applications.

A paper describing the work, titled “Popcorn-Driven Robotic Actuators,” was recently presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 2018 event in Brisbane, Australia.

Editors' Recommendations

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
Steam Deck is much more powerful than we thought, per spec correction
Two players using Steam Decks to play Stardew Valley.

Valve has clarified the technical specifications for the Steam Deck on its website. The site now properly displays that the Steam Deck has a quad-channel 32-bit LPDDR5 memory with a bandwidth of 88 GB/s.

Originally the site claimed that the handheld console had a dual-channel LPDDR5 memory with only about 44Gbps of data transfer. This correction properly reflects the true power of the Steam Deck and practically doubles its power compared to the initial announcement.

Read more
Smart dummies: How robotic tackling tech is transforming football practice
USA Football MVP Robotics

Robots frequently step into the breach to carry out jobs that humans once performed. But this isn't usually because humans have been banned from doing the job.

“Back in 2010, the head football coach at Dartmouth College decided to completely eliminate tackling for practice,” Ryan McManus, director of sales and marketing at a Vermont-based company called MVP Robotics, told Digital Trends. “It was relatively controversial at the time, since it's a pretty important skill that has to be practiced, especially at the Division 1 level. They were trying to figure out a safer way to simulate a game scenario, but no one knew exactly how to do it.”

Read more
Samsung’s new display tech makes the Galaxy S21 Ultra even more power efficient
samsung galaxy s21 ultra review apps screen

It's safe to say that OLED displays are the gold standard on smartphones these days. What you might not know is that some OLED panels are better than others, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra features what may well be the best one to date.

Well, best may be subjective in some ways -- but the device's display is definitely the most power efficient. In fact, Samsung developed a new ultra-low-power OLED display for the new phone, and it reduces energy consumption by up to 16%.

Read more