New High-Speed Soft Robot Design Takes Inspiration from the Cheetah
Denrie Caila Perez posted on May 19, 2020 |
A “bistabile” spine allows a LEAP soft robot to gallop instead of crawl.
A cheetah in motion. (Image by Cara Fuller. Sourced from Unsplash.)
A cheetah in motion. (Image by Cara Fuller. Sourced from Unsplash.)

A team of researchers recently introduced a new, innovative design for soft robot technology. Called “Leveraging Elastic instabilities for Amplified Performance,” or LEAP, this new class of soft robots aims to surpass most existing models’ speed limitations. The research study states that the new design would make way for “next-generation high performance soft robots” that will be more multifunctional and allow for material flexibility. To achieve this, engineers and researchers from various universities took their inspiration from the high-speed cheetah.

“We were inspired by the cheetah to create a type of soft robot that has a spring-powered, ‘bistable’ spine, meaning that the robot has two stable states,” said Jie Yin, one of the study’s lead researchers.

The two states of the cheetah’s bistable spine and the soft robot design that mimics them. (Image courtesy of North Carolina State University.)
The two states of the cheetah’s bistable spine and the soft robot design that mimics them. (Image courtesy of North Carolina State University.)

Yin explained that a cheetah’s speed and power is due to the flexing of its spine. Because the soft robot is designed with a bistable spine, it can easily switch between the two stable states by rapidly “pumping air into the channels that line the soft, silicone robot.” It’s this phenomenon that releases the energy needed for the robot to be able to exert a significant amount of force. The bistable design principle allows the soft robots to rapidly store and release energy in milliseconds. This makes them capable of performing a galloping motion, which is in stark contrast to existing models that have only been capable of crawling—which is what has limited their speed in the first place.

The new soft robots can now quickly traverse steep inclines and initially demanding terrain. Before the LEAP design, the average speed of a soft robot was approximately 0.8 body lengths per second on a flat surface. The new LEAP soft robots are three times faster, reaching speeds up to 2.7 body lengths per second. The researchers have also suggested that this design could be beneficial in swimming applications and could potentially improve the swimming speeds of soft robots.

When outfitted with fins, the LEAP soft robot performed a fraction better at 0.78 body lengths per second compared to the fastest swimming record of existing models at 0.7 body lengths per second. The team also explored the use of several soft robots working together to perform group tasks such as lifting objects.

“By tuning the force exerted by the robots, we were able to lift objects as delicate as an egg, as well as objects weighing 10 kilograms [22 lb] or more,” shared Yin.

The LEAP design is currently undergoing proof of concept work; however, the researchers are optimistic that it can be significant to other sectors such as search and rescue technology and industrial manufacturing robotics.

The complete research article can be viewed here.

The success of the LEAP project is due to the collective effort of researchers from North Carolina State University, Temple University, Colorado State University, the City University of New York, and NC State. The research was funded by The National Science Foundation.


For more news and stories, check out how artificial muscles give soft robots super strength here.


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