Balloon + coffee + vacuum gripper

I’d watched with interest some clips of using a vacuum to “solidify” dry coffee grounds in a balloon to effect a robotic gripper, but was finally inspired to actually try to make one as an assistant counselor for a Robotics merit badge at Merit Badge University on 2/25/12.

I found some heavy duty balloons at a local hobby shop marketed as waterproof bags for radios for RC planes.  (Who’da thunk it?)  At maybe 2″ diameter barely inflated, they were a little smaller than ideal, but that was what I could get on short notice.

The first question was how to fill an inflated balloon?  (Actually this is the wrong question:  If you have to inflate it to get the amount of coffee you want inside, the balloon is probably too small.)  I found a T fitting that would fit the neck of the balloon and the neck of a small flask (with the help of some masking tape).  I put “enough” coffee in the flask, and stoppered it with the T – balloon upwards.  Using the third leg of the T, I inflated the balloon suitably (obviously pressurizing the flask at the same time).  Holding my thumb over the leg I’d blown into, I inverted the whole thing and let the coffee pour into the balloon.  Worked fine.

Now – how to keep the coffee grounds out of the vacuum source (whatever that might be…)?  First try was a filter to set over the grounds near the mouth of the balloon.  I found some near perfect very open, fine net in the sewing room scrap pile.  (Might be tulle?)  After a few failed tries at poking the stuff into the neck of the balloon, I gave up – with greater respect for ship-in-a-bottle builders.  Somebody mentioned a cotton ball, so I stuffed one of those into the balloon.  That wasn’t a great idea, either.  There’s much too much movement in the balloon to keep anything aligned with the bit of tubing going through the neck.

Final approach (how come it’s always the last thing you try?) was to just stuff the cotton ball into the tubing before putting it into the balloon.  Worked fine.  Final pressure control (positive and negative wrt atmospheric) was a large syringe that just fit the fat tubing I was using.

For my setup (which included an overfilled balloon), best results were when I pumped maybe 1/2 fl oz of air into the balloon to make it nice and soft so I could squish it firmly around the object to be gripped, then pull the plunger back to solidify the coffee.  There’s obviously no actual squeezing of the object from the hardened coffee, but with the sort of sticky balloon surface, it would hold a 9V battery quite nicely.  Picking up something like a pen where the balloon could actually get a little bit underneath the object produced better holding.  Pushing the plunger back in to let the object drop on the table usually got applause from the scouts watching.  Sorry for no pic of that – the balloons were all broken before I got a shot.

All in all a fun exercise.  Some thoughts:  Get a good sized balloon (obviously not mylar!).  You have to push the balloon down to very significantly surround the object to be picked up.  The 2 oz syringe I used worked fine for my small balloon.  Of course use heavy wall tubing so it doesn’t collapse.  Since you have to manually surround the object with the balloon, a surgical glove might be an interesting alternative to a spherical balloon.

Update 3/2/12:  I got a package of twenty 12″ balloons at a party store and brought all the stuff to W88 Thursday.  I didn’t have time to build anything up before hand, so I assembled one on the table at the space.  It worked fine.  Here’s the balloon being pushed down around the pickup target.  Note that it’s not particularly being squeezed against the target – just pushed down to provide lots of surface contact.

Here’s a successful pickup.  But even an unsuccessful pickup leaves a very clear impression of the target.  Something like a fat pen that the balloon can fit a little around and under is an ideal target.  You do have to squeeze a little to get the grabber around underneath.


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6 Responses to Balloon + coffee + vacuum gripper

  1. Jim says:

    If you want, I have a spare real vacuum pump you could use for this project.

    For my bag press pump, I used an automotive fuel filter in the vacuum line. They make them in lawn mower size too, if your tubing is really small. I’ve had no collapses with quarter inch clear tubing from Home Depot.
    Disclaimer: I have not actually used the bag press on a real project yet.

  2. Jim says:

    Thanks for the offer. So far the syringe is pretty suitable for the demos I’ve done. Making a crude vacuum pump from an old fridge compressor has been on the list for oh, maybe 30 years. Haven’t done it yet. Yours (including the storage tanks) looks great. So are the 2 pumps for extra capacity when needed (and not needed and so no hooked up yet?).

    I’d never heard of vacuum bag pressing. Thanks for exposing me to yet another bit of technology.

    I got some more appropriate balloons, and hope to make it to the space Thursday evening and do a little demo.

  3. Jim says:

    Bag press is good for gluing odd shaped parts or flat things, commonly used to glue veneer to a substrate. You can buy bags big enough for a 4×8′ sheet of plywood. Here is a more recent pic
    It is now pimped out with gauge, filter, and an air toggle switch. It has both diaphragms in series, will pull 26″. The tanks are from propane torch. It still needs a pressure sensor switch. This is the one I can loan you:
    Was a giveaway at one of the Dupage woodworkers meetings. It has provisions for filters but is missing the glass bowls. Dunno it’s history. Have not fired it up but will tonight, you have inspired me.

  4. Dave says:

    Cool! I remember seeing this video on SFE and wanting to try it out…

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