Research ArticleSOFT ROBOTS

Electronics-free pneumatic circuits for controlling soft-legged robots

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Science Robotics  17 Feb 2021:
Vol. 6, Issue 51, eaay2627
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aay2627


Pneumatically actuated soft robots have recently shown promise for their ability to adapt to their environment. Previously, these robots have been controlled with electromechanical components, such as valves and pumps, that are typically bulky and expensive. Here, we present an approach for controlling the gaits of soft-legged robots using simple pneumatic circuits without any electronic components. This approach produces locomotive gaits using ring oscillators composed of soft valves that generate oscillating signals analogous to biological central pattern generator neural circuits, which are acted upon by pneumatic logic components in response to sensor inputs. Our robot requires only a constant source of pressurized air to power both control and actuation systems. We demonstrate this approach by designing pneumatic control circuits to generate walking gaits for a soft-legged quadruped with three degrees of freedom per leg and to switch between gaits to control the direction of locomotion. In experiments, we controlled a basic walking gait using only three pneumatic memory elements (valves). With two oscillator circuits (seven valves), we were able to improve locomotion speed by 270%. Furthermore, with a pneumatic memory element we designed to mimic a double-pole double-throw switch, we demonstrated a control circuit that allowed the robot to select between gaits for omnidirectional locomotion and to respond to sensor input. This work represents a step toward fully autonomous, electronics-free walking robots for applications including low-cost robotics for entertainment and systems for operation in environments where electronics may not be suitable.

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