Research ArticleSOFT ROBOTS

An untethered isoperimetric soft robot

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Science Robotics  18 Mar 2020:
Vol. 5, Issue 40, eaaz0492
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aaz0492

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Abstract

For robots to be useful for real-world applications, they must be safe around humans, be adaptable to their environment, and operate in an untethered manner. Soft robots could potentially meet these requirements; however, existing soft robotic architectures are limited by their ability to scale to human sizes and operate at these scales without a tether to transmit power or pressurized air from an external source. Here, we report an untethered, inflated robotic truss, composed of thin-walled inflatable tubes, capable of shape change by continuously relocating its joints, while its total edge length remains constant. Specifically, a set of identical roller modules each pinch the tube to create an effective joint that separates two edges, and modules can be connected to form complex structures. Driving a roller module along a tube changes the overall shape, lengthening one edge and shortening another, while the total edge length and hence fluid volume remain constant. This isoperimetric behavior allows the robot to operate without compressing air or requiring a tether. Our concept brings together advantages from three distinct types of robots—soft, collective, and truss-based—while overcoming certain limitations of each. Our robots are robust and safe, like soft robots, but not limited by a tether; are modular, like collective robots, but not limited by complex subunits; and are shape-changing, like truss robots, but not limited by rigid linear actuators. We demonstrate two-dimensional (2D) robots capable of shape change and a human-scale 3D robot capable of punctuated rolling locomotion and manipulation, all constructed with the same modular rollers and operating without a tether.

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