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Soft Machines


soft actuator demo, illustration

The researchers' small, soft actuator is made of liquid metals and flexible polymers.

University of California, Santa Barbara researchers have combined the electromagnetic drives used in most conventional robotic systems with soft materials, a development that yields robotics with both speed and softness.

The researchers built an actuator that could realize speeds greater than what have typically been possible with soft robotic actuators, which often rely on slow processes such as air flow or thermal effects. The researchers used unique liquid-metal alloy conductors encased in hollow polymer fibers and magnetized polymer composites to create patterned, three-dimensional components to form the basis of soft analogs of standard electrical motors. "We realized components that are each soft and stretchable, and combined them to create these motor-like structures that can move things," says UCSB's Yon Visell.

The researchers employed their discovery to create a tiny, millimeters-wide gripper that can close in milliseconds, and a soft tactile stimulator that can operate at frequencies of hundreds of cycles each second.

From University of California, Santa Barbara
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