Scientists have created the first functional soft robot powered entirely by vacuum that moves by having air sucked out of it, and can perform different tasks, such as climbing vertical walls and grabbing objects. For the robot to move, air has to be sucked out of its individual components. Inspired by muscle contraction, its individual soft components are activated (they collapse) when vacuum is applied to them. The robot uses suction to grab objects or to stick to a smooth wall for climbing, so it can really achieve a wide range of tasks because of the unique properties of vacuum. The robot can be reconfigured to perform different tasks, making it highly modular and versatile, with a wide range of applications in both research and in industry. “What we have is a fully functional robot which is entirely powered by vacuum, which has never been done before,” said Matt Robertson, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. “Previous work has shown individual components powered by vacuum, but never in a complete system,” said Robertson.
Vacuum-powered components are a recent addition to robotics – and, more importantly, they are safe. Today, most actuators on the market are activated by applying positive pressure, ie by injecting air into their components. However, containing positive pressure requires stiff high-pressure pneumatics, which also pose a safety threat: in extreme situations, they can explode. By comparison, vacuum-powered actuators are safe, soft, and simple to build. “What’s more is that our soft building blocks are designed to be plug-and-play, so ultimately we can assemble several types of robots from the same basic units,” said Jamie Paik, scientist at EPFL.
“They can be reconfigured to perform different tasks like crawling, gripping canisters, and climbing a vertical wall,” said Paik, lead researcher of the study published in the journal Science Robotics. A five-module robot can move like a tentacle; a four- module robot with a suction gripper can grab an object and drop it on a target; a three-module robot can crawl on the ground; a two-module robot can be equipped with suction-cup feet to climb a smooth, vertical surface, like glass. The enormous versatility of the new robots can be exploited for studying locomotion and for future applications at an industrial level, researchers said.