Cornell University and the University of Chicago have developed a new robotic arm that works in much the same way as many others we've seen, but with a twist. Unlike most robotic arms we've seen which emulate a human hand, the researchers have created what they call the "simple passive universal gripper." This uses a membrane filled with a mass of granular material (like a balloon filled with sand) connected to an air compressor and vacuum. To pick up an object, the balloon pushes down on it and then the vacuum kicks in, causing the balloon to harden and grip the object. To throw the item, the process is reversed, with a compressor quickly pumping air into the membrane to project the grabbed object at speed.
Despite the lack of fingers, the arm's very dextrous, able to pick up nuts and bolts, balls, and darts before accurately sorting them into boxes, throwing them through basketball hoops, and even hitting the bullseye on three consecutive throws. The engineers behind it see potential for the gripper in a number of locations, including handling improvised explosive devices and in manufacturing where the ability to handle a diverse range of shapes could prove invaluable.