Engineers from the University of California Riverside have unveiled a new creation designed to control the movements of soft robots. Engineers have revealed a pneumatically powered computer memory system that overcomes one of the biggest obstacles to the advancement of soft robotics. This major obstacle is the mismatch between pneumatics and electronics.
Typically, the movements of soft robots are controlled by the air entering and exiting the bladders inside the robot. The limbs of soft robots are flexible and rubbery, often with grippers, and soft robots can be superior to traditional rigid robots performing certain tasks, especially delicate ones. Soft robots are also safer to work with humans, making them a major focus of investigation for researchers around the world. Existing pneumatic flexible robot control systems use electronic valves and computers to control the position of moving parts.
Electronic parts dramatically increase the cost, size, and power demands of soft robots, limiting their usefulness. The researchers created a system that uses “pneumatic logic”. The theory of pneumatic logic predates electronic computers and was once used to provide an advanced level of control of components in air conditioning systems and other tasks in the early 1900s. In pneumatic logic systems, air rather than electricity flows through computer channels and represents activation or deactivation.
The team found that they could create pneumatic logic memory for soft robots to allow them to remember and maintain the position of moving parts. Scientists also built RAM chips using microfluidic valves rather than electronic transistors. Microfluidic valves were originally designed to control the flow of liquids and control the flow of air. The valves in the system are sealed against a pressure differential even when disconnected from the air supply line, creating trapped pressure differentials that function as memories maintaining the actuation state of the robot.
The team modified microfluidic valves to handle higher airflows, producing an eight-bit pneumatic RAM chip that drives larger, faster robots. The system is integrated with a pair of 3D printed rubber needles. The system featured flexible robotic fingers that extended when connected to atmospheric pressure and contracted when connected to a vacuum cleaner. The team was able to use their gentle robotic hand to play a song on the piano.