This gripper works because of a process that is called "jamming
." When a granular material such as coffee is compressed, it becomes very rigid. As the pressure increases so does the amount of friction between the individual grains. This effectively locks the grains in place.
You may have observed this phenomenon while handling bags of coffee grounds. A vacuum packed bag of coffee grounds is rock hard as long as the seal remains intact. But as soon as the seal is broken, the coffee become soft and pliable and can be poured like a fluid. This process happens with many granular materials such as rice, couscous and even sand.
We are utilizing this process to make an amorphous robot gripper. A balloon is filled coffee grounds and attached to an air hose. When balloon is slightly pressurized the grounds are loose and easily rearranged. By pressing the balloon against an object, the grounds will move around it and take its shape. But when the air is sucked out of the balloon, the grounds are compressed and grip the object. The rubber surface of the balloon also helps to keep a hold of the object.
Here is a video from Cornell University that explains the process: