Soft inflatable robots have become increasingly popular for applications that require safety and adaptability. However, integrating sensing and control systems into these robots presents significant challenges. In a breakthrough development, a research team has created “soft valve” technology that integrates sensors and control valves into inflatable robots while maintaining their softness.
Traditionally, soft robots have relied on rigid electrical components for sensing and control. This study introduces soft analogues of sensors and control valves that operate without electricity. The resulting tube-shaped component detects environmental inputs and controls driving motion using air pressure. These all-soft valves enable safe operation underwater or in environments where sparks may pose a risk, while also reducing the weight load on robotic systems by eliminating the need for electricity-dependent components.
The research team has demonstrated several applications for this technology. Universal tongs have been developed to delicately handle fragile items, such as potato chips, without causing breakage. Additionally, wearable elbow assist robots have been created to reduce muscle strain during repetitive or strenuous activities. These robots automatically adjust their support based on the angle at which the wearer’s arm is bent.
The soft valve technology works by directing airflow through a tube-shaped structure. When stress is applied, a helically coiled thread within the tube contracts, controlling the flow of air. This accordion-like action allows for precise and flexible movements without the need for electricity. The research team has also demonstrated the programmability of the valve by managing airflow changes through different thread architectures.
This breakthrough in soft valve technology eliminates the reliance on electronic devices and enables customizability for various applications. It holds great promise for advancements in wearable systems and opens up new possibilities for the integration of sensors and control systems in soft robots.