Robots Powered by Popcorn? The Strange Science Behind a Cornell Experiment

While you've been snacking, they've been innovating.

We’ve all scarfed it down at the movies and made necklaces with it as children. But while we were getting liquid butter all over our hands and faces, roboticists at Cornell University’s Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab tell Inverse that popcorn can be used for much more.

In an experiment to test possibilities for cheaper, more easily produced robots, the team at Cornell placed 36 kernels inside of a flexible, three-pronged silicone beam, laced with toaster wire. An electrical current was passed through the metal chord, which slowly heated up the kernels until they popped. The expanding kernels contorted the silicon sleeve into a claw shape that can carry up to 9 pounds, more than enough to yank those Toy Story green aliens from a movie-theatre claw machine.

In other words, they made a simple robot, powered by popcorn popping.

Their paper was recently presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May, when the team explained how cheap and simple robots like this can be combined to create more complex systems. This same type of process is found in nature, which co-author Kirstin Petersen calls “natural collectives.”

A soft robotic device powered by popcorn, constructed by researchers in Cornell’s Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab.

“Lots of systems in nature are composed of relatively cheap individuals that go about using their own bodies as building blocks,” she explains. “We’re looking into soft robots for doing this because there are specific examples, these multicellular slime molds in nature that actually form quite complex structure out of their own bodies, we’d like to be able to do that.”

The team focused on creating a popcorn-powered talon because hands enable robots to complete basic transportation tasks. But first-author Steven Ceron said the snack has even more practical uses.

Popcorn has the unique characteristics of being cheap, readily available, and can expand 10 times in size when you heat it up. Petersen says this could be a stepping stone toward collective soft robots, while Ceron said that popcorn could see even wider use as an inexpensive building block to create biodegradable structures or even as an alternative to spray foam.

“You can also imagine that they would work well for construction robots, that use these inexpensive and low transport-volume kernels to build structures in an unstructured environment or to seal cracks in a foundation for example,” he explains. “The kernels pop, expand in size, interlock with each other, and jams to secure whatever object they are surrounding.”

That’s not all, either. Ceron says that once you’re done using the claw you can still take the popcorn out and eat it. Now that’s innovation.

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