We have developed a Vacuum-powered Soft Pneumatic Actuator (V-SPA) which leverages a single, shared vacuum power supply and enables complex soft robotic systems with multiple-DoF and diverse functions. In addition to actuation, other utilities enabled by vacuum pressure include gripping and stiffening through granular media jamming, as well as direct suction adhesion to smooth surfaces, for manipulation or vertical fixation. We investigated the performance of the new actuator through direct characterization of a 3-DoF, plug-and-play V-SPA Module built from multiple V-SPAs, and demonstrate the integration of different vacuum-enabled capabilities with a continuum-style robot platform outfitted with modular peripheral mechanisms. We show these different vacuum-powered modules can be combined to achieve a variety of tasks, including multi-modal locomotion, object manipulation, and stiffness tuning to illustrate the utility and viability of vacuum as a singular alternative power source for soft pneumatic robots, and not just a peripheral feature in itself. Our results highlight the effectiveness of V-SPAs in providing core soft robot capabilities and facilitating the consolidation of previously disparate subsystems for actuation and various specialized tasks, conducive to improving the compact design efficiency of larger, more complex multi-functional soft robotic systems.”


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