Soft bending actuators are inherently compliant, compact, and lightweight. They are preferable candidates over rigid actuators for robotic applications ranging from physical human interaction to delicate object manipulation. However, characterizing and predicting their behaviors are challenging due to the material nonlinearities and the complex motions they can produce. This paper investigates a soft bending actuator design that uses a single air chamber and fiber reinforcements. Additionally, the actuator design incorporates a sensing layer to enable real-time bending angle measurement for analysis and control. In order to study the bending and force exertion characteristics when interacting with the environment, a quasistatic analytical model is developed based on the bending moments generated from the applied internal pressure and stretches of the soft materials. Comparatively, a finite-element method model is created for the same actuator design. Both the analytical model and the finite-element model are used in the fiber reinforcement analysis and the validation experiments with fabricated actuators. The experimental results demonstrate that the analytical model captures the relationships of supplied air pressure, actuator bending angle, and interaction force at the actuator tip. Moreover, it is shown that an off-the-shelf bend angle sensor integrated to the actuator in this study could provide real-time force estimation, thus eliminating the need for a force sensor.
There is much interest in form-fitting, low-modulus, implantable devices or soft robots that can mimic or assist in complex biological functions such as the contraction of heart muscle. We present a soft robotic sleeve that is implanted around the heart and actively compresses and twists to act as a cardiac ventricular assist device. The sleeve does not contact blood, obviating the need for anticoagulation therapy or blood thinners, and reduces complications with current ventricular assist devices, such as clotting and infection. Our approach used a biologically inspired design to orient individual contracting elements or actuators in a layered helical and circumferential fashion, mimicking the orientation of the outer two muscle layers of the mammalian heart. The resulting implantable soft robot mimicked the form and function of the native heart, with a stiffness value of the same order of magnitude as that of the heart tissue. We demonstrated feasibility of this soft sleeve device for supporting heart function in a porcine model of acute heart failure. The soft robotic sleeve can be customized to patient-specific needs and may have the potential to act as a bridge to transplant for patients with heart failure.
The Soft Robotics Toolkit (SRT) is an open-access website containing detailed information about the design, fabrication, and characterization of soft-robotic components and systems (Figure 1). Soft robotics is a growing field of research concerned with the development of electromechanical technology composed of compliant materials or structures. The SRT website hosts design files, multimedia fabrication instructions, and software tutorials submitted by an international community of soft-robotics researchers and designers. In this article, we describe the development of the SRT and some challenges in developing widely disseminated robotic-hardware resources. Our attempts to overcome these challenges in the development of the toolkit are discussed by focusing on strategies that have been used to engage participants ranging from K-12 grade students to robotics research groups. A series of design competitions encouraged people to use and contribute to the toolkit. New fabrication methods requiring only low-cost and accessible materials were developed to lower the entry barriers to soft robotics and instructional materials and outreach activities were used to engage new audiences. We hope that our experiences in developing and scaling the toolkit may serve as guidance for other open robotic-hardware projects.
Recent advances in medical robotics have initiated a transition from rigid serial manipulators to flexible or continuum robots capable of navigating to confined anatomy within the body. A desire for further procedure minimization is a key accelerator for the development of these flexible systems where the end goal is to provide access to the previously inaccessible anatomical workspaces and enable new minimally invasive surgical (MIS) procedures. While sophisticated navigation and control capabilities have been demonstrated for such systems, existing manufacturing approaches have limited the capabilities of millimeter-scale end-effectors for these flexible systems to date and, to achieve next generation highly functional end-effectors for surgical robots, advanced manufacturing approaches are required. We address this challenge by utilizing a disruptive 2D layer-by-layer precision fabrication process (inspired by printed circuit board manufacturing) that can create functional 3D mechanisms by folding 2D layers of materials which may be structural, flexible, adhesive, or conductive. Such an approach enables actuation, sensing, and circuitry to be directly integrated with the articulating features by selecting the appropriate materials during the layer-by-layer manufacturing process. To demonstrate the efficacy of this technology, we use it to fabricate three modular robotic components at the millimeter-scale: (1) sensors, (2) mechanisms, and (3) actuators. These modules could potentially be implemented into transendoscopic systems, enabling bilateral grasping, retraction and cutting, and could potentially mitigate challenging MIS interventions performed via endoscopy or flexible means. This research lays the ground work for new mechanism, sensor and actuation technologies that can be readily integrated via new millimeter-scale layer-by-layer manufacturing approaches.
To understand the effects of soft exosuits on human loaded walking, we developed a reconfigurable multi-joint actuation platform that can provide synchronized forces to the ankle and hip joints. Two different assistive strategies were evaluated on eight subjects walking on a treadmill at a speed of 1.25 m/s with a 23.8 kg backpack: 1) hip extension assistance and 2) multi-joint assistance (hip extension, ankle plantarflexion and hip flexion). Results show that the exosuit introduces minimum changes to kinematics and reduces biological joint moments. A reduction trend in muscular activity was observed for both conditions. On average, the exosuit reduced the metabolic cost of walking by 0.21 ± 0.04 W/kg and 0.67 ± 0.09 W/kg for hip extension assistance and multi-joint assistance respectively, which is equivalent to an average metabolic reduction of 4.6% and 14.6% demonstrating that soft exosuits can effectively improve human walking efficiency during load carriage without affecting natural walking gait. Moreover, it indicates that actuating multiple joints with soft exosuits provides a significant benefit to muscular activity and metabolic cost compared to actuating single joint.