When many people think of robots, machinery with rigid components comes to mind. And, indeed, many pieces of robotic equipment do fit that description.

But, there’s been a transition with robots that are more flexible. This development could result in robots that are more user-friendly and versatile than ever.

Scientists Are Working on Better Robotic Muscles

Engineers are involved in ongoing efforts to improve the capabilities of artificial muscles inside robots. Then, it’d be possible to build robots with enhanced gripping abilities that can handle other biologically inspired tasks.

Eventually, people might have such robots in their homes to help with things like cooking or lifting items. Such benefits could be particularly beneficial for stroke patients or people with lifelong physical disabilities, for example. Currently available robotic arms that attach to wheelchairs are flexible enough to assist with grabbing a tissue or retrieving dropped items.

One development a Columbia Engineering team made possible in 2017 involves using a self-contained actuator to flex the muscle. Previously, it was necessary to use a separate compressor or high-voltage piece of equipment.

This new soft muscle can lift up to 100 times its weight, plus push, pull and twist. The researchers say that achievement is an artificial representation that’s the closest option to a real muscle.

A Flexible Robotic Motor

There are already some robots with soft and flexible components. But, they typically have rigid features too, since parts like motors are hard. Engineers at Rutgers University figured out how to make a wheel-and-axle assembly out of a silicone rubber that’s almost a million times softer than aluminum. They used 3-D printing and soft lithography to formulate the product.

The team notes a soft mechanical structure makes robotic vehicles more able to handle uneven terrain compared to completely rigid builds. The flexibility of an elastic material could provide natural shock absorption. Eventually, this technology may show up in robots that wander through disaster sites during search-and-rescue operations, helping human workers find survivors more efficiently.

Stanford Researchers Make a Robot That Can Grow

A Stanford University project resulted in a snake-like robot that can get longer or bend around obstacles, depending on the needs of the environment. So, if the robot has to go inside a small hole, operators could command it to extend and squeeze into the opening, thereby reaching places not readily accessible to humans.

Some flexible robots have components made from polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) tubing. PTFE is the most flexible kind of fluoropolymer tubing, and it has the lowest coefficient of friction. The latter quality makes it ideal for use with applications that require lubricating materials, which may apply to some robotics applications.

When designing their prototypes, the Stanford team used a tube made of inexpensive and thin plastic folded like an inside-out sock. Then, they applied air pressure to make the tube become everted and grow.