Research ArticleSOFT ROBOTS

New soft robots really suck: Vacuum-powered systems empower diverse capabilities

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Science Robotics  30 Aug 2017:
Vol. 2, Issue 9, eaan6357
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aan6357

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We introduce a vacuum-powered soft pneumatic actuator (V-SPA) that leverages a single, shared vacuum power supply and enables complex soft robotic systems with multiple degrees of freedom (DoFs) and diverse functions. In addition to actuation, other utilities enabled by vacuum pressure include gripping and stiffening through granular media jamming, as well as direct suction adhesion to smooth surfaces, for manipulation or vertical fixation. We investigate the performance of the new actuator through direct characterization of a 3-DoF, plug-and-play V-SPA Module built from multiple V-SPAs and demonstrate the integration of different vacuum-enabled capabilities with a continuum-style robot platform outfitted with modular peripheral mechanisms. We show that these different vacuum-powered modules can be combined to achieve a variety of tasks—including multimodal locomotion, object manipulation, and stiffness tuning—to illustrate the utility and viability of vacuum as a singular alternative power source for soft pneumatic robots and not just a peripheral feature in itself. Our results highlight the effectiveness of V-SPAs in providing core soft robot capabilities and facilitating the consolidation of previously disparate subsystems for actuation and various specialized tasks, conducive to improving the compact design efficiency of larger, more complex multifunctional soft robotic systems.

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