The field of soft robotics is seeing some real progress towards functional, pliable machines that could work more safely with humans than their stiffer and unforgiving brethren. Researchers in Switzerland have now taken another step forward in this area, with a modular robot that can walk, climb vertical surfaces and even move things around.
One of the key challenges when it comes to soft robotics is not just making the parts themselves soft, but the actuators that control those parts, too. We have seen researchers in pursuit of this come up with inventive ways to get the machines on the move, using polymers that react to changes in light and others that use alternating air pressure and elastic energy.
Now researchers at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) have developed a new kind of soft actuator that takes a different approach. Each module of the robot consists of three inflatable pillars made from foam and silicone-rubber, sandwiched between small circular panels. All the pillars are controlled by a single vacuum pump, and by inflating some and not others, the module can be made to bend in three directions.
Plug these modules into one another, and you've got a kind of robotic tower that can perform a range of tasks. It can be placed flat and move in waves to shuffle along the ground like a snake, can be fitted with suction cups to climb vertical surfaces, and use those cups to pick up and move objects. The team hopes that its work can provide the basis for a new generation of soft robots that do away with hard parts and are therefore safer for humans to work with.
You can see the modular robot do its thing in the video below, while the team has published its research in the journal ScienceRobotics.