Robots with inflatable components are an emerging trend, as seen in this Japanese giant robot arm, but they require on-the-fly inflation/deflation in order to change shape and thus create motion. This requires they remain connected to an air compressor. Finding this tethering undesirable, a team of Stanford engineers asked "What if we kept the same amount of air within the robot all the time?"
Through experimentation, they found that if you have an inflated tube of air, and a small mechanism that can travel along the outside of the tube and pinch it off, so to speak, that tube then changes shape:
By assembling multiple tubes with this configuration, they were able to create a soft robot that can change shape on a larger scale, roll around and even hold onto a basketball without needing to lose or gain any air:
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"It could use its shape-changing ability to traverse complicated environments, squeezing through tight spaces and spreading over obstacles," suggests Zachary Hammond, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Stanford and co-lead author of their paper on the subject, published March 18 in Science Robotics.
"This research highlights the power of thinking about how to design and build robots in new ways," says Allison Okamura, professor of mechanical engineering and co-author of the paper. "The creativity of robot design is expanding with this type of system and that's something we'd really like to encourage in the robotics field."