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Gentle Strength For Robots

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Membranes surrounding sealed, air-filled chambers can be used as actuators, facilitating risk-free contact between humans and robots.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems have developed an elastic actuator small enough to be integrated in robots.

Credit: Alejandro Posada

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (MPI-IS) in Stuttgart, Germany, have developed an elastic actuator that is compliant and small enough to be integrated in robots.

The actuator works with hyperelastic membranes that surround air-filled chambers, the volume of which can be controlled by an electric field at the membrane.

Current elastic actuators that exert a force by stretching air-filled chambers require a connection to pumps and compressors, but the researchers say the new soft actuator can be implemented without such bulky equipment. "We have developed an actuator that makes large changes in form possible without an external supply of compressed air," says MPI-IS director Metin Sitti.

The new device consists of a dielectric elastomer actuator, which is composed of a membrane made of hyperelastic material like a latex balloon, with flexible electrodes attached to each side. The stretching of the membrane is regulated by an electric field between the electrodes; when voltage is applied, the electrodes attract each other and squeeze the membrane.

"It is important to find suitable hyperelastic polymers that will enable strong and fast deformation and be durable," Sitti says.

The researchers have tested different membrane materials and also used models to systematically record the behavior of the elastomer in the actuator.

From Max Planck Gessellschaft
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