Soft robots are inherently safe, highly resilient, and potentially very cheap, making them promising for a wide array of applications. But development on them has been a bit slow relative to other areas of robotics, at least partially because soft robots can’t directly benefit from the massive increase in computing power and sensor and actuator availability that we’ve seen over the last few decades. Instead, roboticists have had to get creative to find ways of achieving the functionality of conventional robotics components using soft materials and compatible power sources.
In the current issue of Science Robotics, researchers from UC San Diego demonstrate a soft walking robot with four legs that moves with a turtle-like gait controlled by a pneumatic circuit system made from tubes and valves. This air-powered nervous system can actuate multiple degrees of freedom in sequence from a single source of pressurized air, offering a huge reduction in complexity and bringing a very basic form of decision making onto the robot itself.