WATCH | Vacuum-powered soft robot grabs objects and climbs walls


A Swiss team has created the first modular robotic system powered by vacuum, enabling the soft blocks to be used to climb vertical surfaces or grab objects and increasing the safety of a robot. Reuters’ Amy Pollock reports.

It looks like a robotic caterpillar.

Each soft building block is made of three pillars that are individually controlled. Air is sucked out of each block allowing it to collapse in three different directions. Add a suction cup and it can be used as a grabber or can climb up smooth surfaces.

“Modular robots are important because that way, with one system, you can do many different things. It’s kind of like your Swiss army knife of robots, so you can pull out different accessories and apply it to different tasks,” Mattew Robertson, EPFL Researcher, saying.

It’s also the first to be powered by a vacuum. While individual parts have been vacuum-powered before, this is the first robotic system to use the technology.

“The beauty of this type of robot is that although it has so many degrees of freedom that can be independently controlled, there is really a single tubing that allows it to be controlled by pneumatic power, meaning we are using negative pressure to drive all different types of degrees of freedom as well as the motion,” Jamie Paik, director of EPFL’S Reconfigurable Robotics, saying.

Without any high pressure pneumatic parts, this robot avoids the risk of explosions in extreme conditions. So it could have uses in industry, research or even the home.

“This type of inherently safe material allows us to have larger types of application. For example, wearable robotics where we need to wear these kind of actuators on our body or to be used around children or in the house actually,” Paik, saying.

While it’s still a prototype, the makers hope by adding blocks users could eventually create their own robots to perform specific tasks around the home.