Engineers create ‘soft’ robots that could move like millipedes or go inside people

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Scientists have found a way to make ‘soft robots’ using balloons that change shape when inflated in air.

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This new technology has been used to create a robot that has a catching arm, a flapping fish tail, and a moving coil that can be used to retrieve a ball.

Unlike traditional rigid robots, these soft robots are “naturally drawn to interact with soft materials like humans or tomatoes,” says assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Pierre-Thomas Brun at Princeton.


This could make them significantly more useful for harvesting food, removing items from conveyor belts, or providing health care – as part of wearable exosuits or under-the-skin devices that can help people with heart issues. can.

The robot is made by injecting bubbles into a liquid polymer called an elastomer that becomes rubbery when solidified, then inflates to bend and move the device. When the elastomer reaches the bottom, gravity helps the bubble to rise up; Once it hardens, it can be removed from the mold and inflated.

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Developing robots is no easy task; Controlling how they stretch and deform through their actuators (the components that control movement) is more challenging than rigid robots because they can change in a potentially infinite number of ways.

Factors such as the thickness of the elastomer coating, how quickly it settles, and how long it takes for it to harden, all affect how the robot will run. These actuators can be several meters long, with features as small as a human hair.

Trevor Jones, a chemical and biological engineer, “If it is allowed more time before curing, the film on top will be thinner. And the thinner the film, the more stretch it will have when you inflate it and the greater the chance of overall bending.” will be the reason.” researcher.

As with air, robots can also be activated using magnetism, electric currents, or changes in temperature and humidity. Predicting how these robots will work is done using “simple equations that anyone can use”, says researcher tienne Jambon-Puillet.

Currently, researchers have created star-shaped hands that can hold a blackberry, a coiled muscle, and fingers that can curl one by one. However it is not foolproof. Bubble casting has only seen real success in a few meters of elastomer-filled tubing, and over-inflation can cause it to pop.

“Failure is frightening enough,” Jones says.

The researchers hope to further develop these robots that would move together in sequential waves, like a millipede, or that would contract and relax from a single source, similar to a human heart.

“We understand this problem very strongly at the level of physics,” Jones said. “So now robotics can really be explored.”


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