Scientists Create 3D-Printed Pneumatic Modules for Controlling Soft Robots Using Air Pressure


In a significant breakthrough, a team of scientists at the University of Freiburg has developed 3D-printed pneumatic modules that allow for the control of soft robots using air pressure alone. This development opens up new possibilities for robots operating in challenging environments where conventional electronic-based robots may not be suitable.

Soft robots have the potential to perform tasks that are beyond the capabilities of traditional robots. They can navigate difficult terrains and operate in environments that pose risks to metal robots, such as exposure to chemicals or radiation. However, controlling these soft robots without electronics has been a major hurdle in their development.

The research team, led by Dr. Stefan Conrad, Dr. Falk Tauber, Joscha Teichmann, and Prof. Dr. Thomas Speck, has overcome this challenge by creating 3D-printed pneumatic logic modules. These modules enable the logical switching of air flow, effectively mimicking electrical control.

A key advantage of these modules is their ability to be produced entirely using a 3D printer and conventional filament printing material. This means that anyone with 3D printing experience can produce these logic modules and use them to control soft robots, without the need for specialized printing equipment.

The modules consist of two pressurized chambers connected by a 3D-printed channel. By compressing the channel, the expanding chambers can control the air flow, acting as valves. By opening and closing the valves in a controlled manner, the modules can perform logical functions such as AND, OR, and NOT, similar to electrical circuits. This enables the modules to direct the air flow into the movement elements of the soft robot.

The pressure required to operate the modules can range from 80 to over 750 kilopascals, depending on the material used. Additionally, the modules have a fast response time of around 100 milliseconds, making them highly efficient compared to other pneumatic systems.

The potential applications of these modules are vast. One example showcased by the research team is a 3D-printed robotic walker that can withstand the weight of a car driving over it. The flexibility of these logic modules allows for complex control systems, as demonstrated by an electronics-free drinks dispenser developed by the team.

Dr. Falk Tauber highlights the significance of this development, stating, “This marks a significant step towards completely electronics-free pneumatic control circuits that can replace increasingly complex electrical components in soft robots in the future.”

With the ability to control soft robots using air pressure alone, the limitations of conventional electronic-based robots can be overcome. Soft robots equipped with these 3D-printed pneumatic modules hold immense potential for a wide range of applications, from disaster response to explorations in hazardous environments.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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