This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles has a signature move that is named after her because she is the only woman on earth capable of performing it. The move starts as a layout double flip, but more than halfway through suddenly develops a twist that rotates her body through an extra 180 degrees to land face first. The only visible source of this sudden change in rotation is a small motion of one hand as her arm goes from straight to bent.
Researchers have long been trying to make electronics that are safe to eat. These include edible transistors, sensors, batteries, electrodes, and capacitors, which (if you put them together) are most of an edible robot. What's been missing so far has been the thing that makes a robot distinct from a computing system, and that's an edible actuator that would allow an ingestible robot to actually do something useful once you've swallowed it. At IROS last week, researchers from EPFL's Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, headed by Dario Floreano, presented a prototype of a completely edible soft pneumatic actuator made of gelatin. It probably doesn't taste very good, but it's biodegradable, biocompatible, and environmentally sustainable, and could enable all kinds of novel applications, as the researchers explain in their paper: The components of such edible robots could be mixed with nutrient or pharmaceutical components for digestion and metabolization.
It's also an apt way to describe the concept driving HEBI Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based startup at the vanguard of a movement to bring modular components to robotics development. Founded by a team from robotics powerhouse Carnegie Mellon, HEBI makes actuators and encoders that snap together to quickly form new robotic platforms. The company's X-Series line of actuators (engineering speak for motors) contain sensors allowing for simultaneous control of velocity, torque, and position. Crucially, they're designed to fit into myriad new robotic systems on the fly. The approach addresses a lingering problem in robotics development.
Recent advances in soft robotics have seen the development of soft pneumatic actuators (SPAs) to ensure that all parts of the robot are soft, including the functional parts. These SPAs have traditionally used increased pressure in parts of the actuator to initiate movement, but today a team from NCCR Robotics and RRL, EPFL publish a new kind of SPA, one that uses vacuum, in ScienceRobotics. The new vacuum-powered Soft Pneumatic Actuator (V-SPA) is soft, lightweight and very easy to fabricate. By using foam and coating it with layers of silicone-rubber, the team have created an actuator that can be made using off the shelf parts without the need for molds – in fact, it takes just two hours to manufacture the V-SPA. Once produced, the actuators were combined into plug-and-play "V-SPA Modules" which created a simplified design of soft pneumatic robots with many degrees of freedom.
It's not that often that I can steal the title of a paper and use it for a blog article that people will actually read, but I think "Popcorn-Driven Robotic Actuators" totally works, so credit for that to Steven Ceron at Cornell University who's the first author on this paper, presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May. Let's see what else I can steal from it: Popcorn kernels are a natural, edible, and inexpensive material that has the potential to rapidly expand with high force upon application of heat. Although this transition is irreversible, it carries potential for several robotic applications. As kernels can change from regular to (larger) irregular shapes, we examine the change in inter-granular friction and propose their use as granular fluids in jamming actuators, without the need for a vacuum pump. Furthermore, as a proof-of-concept, we also demonstrate the use of popcorn-driven actuation in soft, compliant, and rigidlink grippers.