Here's a fascinating report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on a novel kind of robotic gripper that uses balloons and coffee grounds to attain strong, sensitive grips:
Here we demonstrate a completely different approach to a universal gripper. Individual fingers are replaced by a single mass of granular material that, when pressed onto a target object, flows around it and conforms to its shape. Upon application of a vacuum the granular material contracts and hardens quickly to pinch and hold the object without requiring sensory feedback. We find that volume changes of less than 0.5% suffice to grip objects reliably and hold them with forces exceeding many times their weight. We show that the operating principle is the ability of granular materials to transition between an unjammed, deformable state and a jammed state with solid-like rigidity. We delineate three separate mechanisms, friction, suction, and interlocking, that contribute to the gripping force. Using a simple model we relate each of them to the mechanical strength of the jammed state. This advance opens up new possibilities for the design of simple, yet highly adaptive systems that excel at fast gripping of complex objects.
(Image: Turkish Coffee grounds - degustation - Ottoman Cuisine, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from avlxyz's photostream)