A team from NCCR robotics in Switzerland has devised squishy, air-powered actuators that can be combined to make remarkably flexible, squishy robots.
Most autonomous machines rely on servomotors to move. That's because electric motors are relatively powerful and can be controlled precisely with a computer.
But there are some drawbacks. Electric actuators are heavy and power-intensive. To create a robotic joint with dynamic range of motion, multiple motors are necessary, adding to both weight and power draw.
The NCCR team's solution was a modular pneumatic actuator made of cheap off-the-shelf parts. The actuators plug into one another and only require a single vacuum source.
To demonstrate the utility of these cheap actuators, the team created several simple, squishy robots with capabilities such as ground locomotion, vertical climbing, delicate object manipulation, and changes in stiffness.
Pneumatic actuators are used in a number of robotic applications where weight and power draw is an issue, including in exoskeleton suits and portable pick-and-place machines for warehouses and light manufacturing.
The modular nature of the NCCR team's actuators will make them easy to deploy and easy for developers to use. It's part of a trend toward cheap, modular components that's help driving innovation in the field of robotics.