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Popcorn-powered robot

Engineers power simple robots with popcorn

Image credit: Cornell University Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab

Researchers based at Cornell University have developed a way to power simple robots using a novel source of energy: popcorn kernels.

As a popcorn kernel is heated and popped, it can expand more than 10 times in size, as well as dramatically changing its viscosity and its granularity. As well as being a perfect cheap film-going treat, the snack also has a surprising use in powering simple robots.

“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 Professor Kirsten Petersen, head of 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.”

The use of popcorn in robotics may be unprecedented, but popcorn is abundant, cheap, biodegradable, and – during popping – it rapidly exerts a force which can be used to power small robots.

According to the researchers, small devices powered by popcorn could be swallowed and triggered inside the body, while popped and unpopped corn could be used to replace fluids in soft robots, negating the need for some actuators which help the robot grip, expand or change their rigidity.

“Pumps and compressors tend to be more expensive, and they add a lot of weight and expense to your robot,” said Steven Ceron, doctoral student and lead author of Popcorn-Driven Robotic Actuators. “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.”

In spite of the benefits of these novel mechanisms, robots powered with popcorn have the drawback of being difficult to reuse, as popcorn cannot be “unpopped”. Soaking popcorn in water, however, could remove it, allowing the mechanism to be eventually reused.

The Cornell University researchers hope that their popcorn-powered creations could inspire other roboticists to consider other unconventional materials in their designs.

“Robotics is really good at embracing new ideas, and we can be super creative about what we use to generate multifunctional properties,” said Professor Peterson. “In the end we come up with very simple solutions to fairly complex problems. We don’t always have to look for high-tech solutions. Sometimes the answer is right in front of us.”

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