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 jeopardizing their softness, form factor, or capabilities.
To overcome this challenge, a research team has developed groundbreaking “soft valve” technology, an all-in-one solution that integrates sensors and control valves while maintaining complete softness. This innovation allows soft robot bodies to coexist with soft analogues of sensors and control valves that operate without electricity.
The tube-shaped soft valve component performs two functions: it detects environmental inputs and precisely controls driving motion using only air pressure. These all-soft valves enable safe operation underwater or in spark-prone locations, while also reducing the weight loads on robotic systems by eliminating the need for electricity-dependent components.
Professor Kim explains, “Previous soft robots had flexible bodies but relied on hard electronic parts for stimulus detection sensors and drive control units. Our study focuses on making both sensors and drive control parts using soft materials.”
The research team demonstrated various applications that make use of this ground-breaking technology. They developed universal tongs capable of carefully picking up fragile items without breakage. Additionally, they created wearable elbow assist robots to reduce muscle strain caused by repetitive chores or strenuous activities involving arm movements. The elbow support automatically adjusts based on the angle of the individual’s arm, resulting in a significant reduction in force on the elbow when wearing the robot.
The soft valve operates 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 need for electricity.
Moreover, the research team demonstrated the ability to manage airflow changes by programming different architectures or numbers of threads within the tube. This programmability allows for customized modifications to fit unique situations and requirements, providing flexibility in driving unit reaction even when consistent external forces are applied to the tube’s end.
Professor Bae expressed excitement about this development, stating, “These newly developed components can be easily employed using material programming alone, eliminating electronic devices. This breakthrough will significantly contribute to advancements in various wearable systems.”
This innovative soft valve technology is a significant step towards creating safe, adaptable, and versatile soft robots that can be used in a variety of applications.