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Responsive soft robots inspired by sputtering

Main circuit

picture: basic circuit
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Credit: AMOLF

A well -designed pressure valve allows soft robots to respond to their environment without the need for computer control, AMOLF researchers revealed in their journal article things. That brings robots with natural movements and tactile responses similar to living organisms one step closer to reality. Such developments make soft robots more suitable for exploring rough and unknown terrain or for medical application.


We have always thought of robots as strictly machines controlled by a central computer that precalculates every step. In contrast, living organisms function smoothly because intelligent behavior is rooted in their bodies. That’s great for robots that need to constantly interact with humans, like those used in medical care. Researchers in the field of soft robotics are therefore developing robots made from soft, flexible materials that can respond to changes in their environment without outside guidance.

Bas Overvelde, head of AMOLF’s Soft Robotic Matter Group: ‘We want to make robots without a central computer that can move and respond to their environment because of the reflexes built into the robot body.’ In the journal things, Overvelde’s team presented such a soft robot that works at air pressure without the need for electronics. It can walk and change rhythm by responding around it thanks to the well-designed valve.

bottle of ketchup
At the heart of the new soft robot is a ‘hysteretic valve’, which is the way the researchers referred to their invention in their publication. Outsiders may recognize the valve as a variant of opening the ketchup bottle. ‘The valve ensures that you can easily carry the ketchup and that the liquid does not leak out of the bottle,’ says Overvelde: ‘However, if you turn the bottle over and press it too hard, the ketchup will sometimes leak and bother. . ‘ This happens when the opening is repeated and quickly opens and closes. Modern bottles are customized so that they sputter as much as possible, but Overvelde and his colleagues plan to find out if this bad behavior will allow a robot to operate.

The researchers started a computer model to design characteristics such as the stiffness of the minuscule flaps at valve opening. After that, the valves are made by pouring silicon rubber into a precise 3D printed mold. With a laser, they cut small notches in the valves. As a result of this, they make valves that are usually closed and suddenly open when the pressure becomes high enough. The valves will only close again once the pressure has dropped significantly. If you connect this type of valve to a pump and reservoir, you will automatically create a rhythm of raising the pressure and releasing the air. With this, the soft robot’s muscles alternately flex and relax.

The new component seems simple but has been discovered to have hidden powers, says AMOLF PhD student Luuk van Laake. ‘When we built a computer model of two such valves connected to the same reservoir, they started to open alternately with high accuracy. It was unexpected, but it later proved to be effective as well. ‘ Based on this principle, the researchers were able to create a four -legged robot with natural gait without the need for any external commands. And they also created a soft robotic hand demonstrator with five rhythm tapping fingers.

Responding around
The ultimate dream of soft robot designers is a robot that will not only move, but also respond to its surroundings. Van Laake: ‘Ultimately, you want a robot to automatically change its gait when it encounters an obstacle simply because muscles and joints respond to a change in pressure.’

In the lab, the robot’s response to the environment has proven to be successful. When the researchers briefly closed a flexible tube by squeezing it slightly, the pressure in the robot body changed and the robot then moved to another walk. ‘Our soft robots respond to the environment without a central computer having to control that,’ Van Laake explains.

We’ll have a long way to go before we have soft robots on the side of the bed. But researchers are optimistic about the prospects. Overvelde: ‘With our robot, you can see how simple components can be used to perform complex behaviors without the need for a computer to calculate every move.’

According to Van Laake, a soft robot that operates due to natural reflexes can not only save computer power, but energy as well. ‘In living organisms, many movements and behaviors emerge from the shape of the body and the mechanics of the muscles, rather than the brain controlling all movements.’ For example, our heart automatically balances the pressure in the left and right ventricle and we reuse the elastic energy stored in our arteries with every step we take. ‘That’s very efficient. There are many more characteristics to study in this field. ‘

Lucas C. van Laake, Jelle de Vries, Sevda Malek Kani, Johannes TBOvervelde, A fluidic relaxation oscillator for reprogrammable sequential actuation in soft robots, thingsJuly 8 (2022).

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! is not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted by EurekAlert! by contributing to institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.

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