Stretchable pump powers lightweight soft robots

August 14, 2019 //By Julien Happich
soft robots
Researchers at EPFL have developed a tiny flexible and stretchable pump that could be used in the development of autonomous soft robots, lightweight exoskeletons and smart clothing.

Bending the pump © Vito Cacucciolo / 2019 EPFL.

Flexible, silent and weighing only one gram, the tiny pump could replace the rigid, noisy and bulky pumps currently used in soft robotics. Publishing their results in Nature under the title “Stretchable pumps for soft machines”, the scientists created the soft flexible pumps to eliminate the rigid pumps tethering so far soft robots.

Soft robots have a distinct advantage over their rigid forebears: they can adapt to complex environments, handle fragile objects and interact safely with humans. Made from silicone, rubber or other stretchable polymers, they are ideal for use in rehabilitation exoskeletons and robotic clothing. Soft bio-inspired robots could one day be deployed to explore remote or dangerous environments.

In the new pump design, even the electrodes are flexible. The pump is completely silent and consumes very little power, which it gets from a 20x20mm circuit that includes a rechargeable battery.

Three pumps in series © Vito Cacucciolo / 2019 EPFL.

“If we want to actuate larger robots, we connect several pumps together,” explains Herbert Shea, director of EPFL’s Soft Transducers Laboratory (LMTS). Soft pumps can also be used to circulate liquids in thin flexible tubes embedded in smart clothing, leading to garments that can actively cool or heat different regions of the body. That would meet the needs of surgeons, athletes and pilots, for example.

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