Study finds technology that enables integration of sensing, control in soft robotics

Study finds technology that enables integration of sensing, control in soft robotics
Image source: Google

Washington, US: Soft inflatable robots have emerged as an intriguing paradigm for applications requiring intrinsic safety and adaptability.

However, incorporating sensing and control systems into these robots has presented substantial hurdles without jeopardising their softness, form factor, or capabilities.

In order to overcome this challenge, a research team created ground-breaking "soft valve" technology, an all-in-one solution that integrates sensors and control valves while maintaining complete softness.

For perceptual purposes, soft robot bodies have traditionally coexisted with rigid electrical components. This research team's study provides a fresh technique for overcoming this barrier by developing soft analogues of sensors and control valves that operate without electricity.

The resulting tube-shaped component performs two functions, it detects environmental inputs and precisely controls driving motion using just air pressure. These all-soft valves enable safe operation underwater or in locations where sparks may pose a problem, while also decreasing weight loads on robotic systems by eliminating the requirement for electricity-dependent components. Furthermore, each component is reasonably priced at around 800 Won.

“Previous soft robots had flexible bodies but relied on hard electronic parts for stimulus detection sensors and drive control units,” explained Professor Kim. “Our study focuses on making both sensors and drive control parts using soft materials.”

The research team demonstrated a variety of applications that make use of this ground-breaking technology. They developed universal tongs capable of carefully picking up fragile items like potato chips, eliminating breakage caused by excessive force imposed by traditional stiff robot hands.

They also used these all-soft components to create wearable elbow assist robots, which are intended to decrease muscle strain caused by repetitive chores or strenuous activities involving arm movements. The elbow support automatically adjusts based on the angle at which an individual's arm is bent—an innovation that contributes to a 63 per cent average reduction in the force placed on the elbow when wearing the robot.

The soft valve works by directing airflow through a tube-shaped structure. When stress is applied to one end of the tube, a helically coiled thread within it contracts, controlling air entrance and outflow.

This accordion-like action enables precise and flexible movements without the use of electricity.

Furthermore, the research team proved that they could accurately manage airflow changes by programming different architectures or numbers of threads within the tube.

This programmability allows for customised modifications to fit unique situations and requirements, giving flexibility in driving unit reaction even when consistent external forces are applied to the tube's end.

“These newly developed components can be easily employed using material programming alone, eliminating electronic devices,” expressed Professor Bae with excitement about this development. “This breakthrough will significantly contribute to advancements in various wearable systems.”