Here is the fastest soft robot in the world

Inspired by the cheetah, researchers have designed a robot capable of running three times faster than the previous record. His secret: a flexible spine that allows him to quickly alternate between two stable states. The robot can also climb a steep slope and even swim in water.

They can sneak into narrow channels, explore the human body , climb walls , delicately grab fragile objects or jellyfish … Soft robots have demonstrated exceptional performance in recent years. On the other hand, they are generally quite slow. High speed locomotion requires in particular the storage and rapid release of energy as well as a high precision of the actuators, which is impossible for soft robots which are mostly content to “crawl” slowly on surfaces like snakes. They are thus 100 times slower than rigid robots, some of which like the  Cheetah(which means cheetah in English) can reach 45 km / h, jump to 76 cm in height or even do a back somersault.

The robot gallops like a cheetah

It is however by taking inspiration from this same cheetah that researchers from the University of North Carolina (United States) designed a soft silicone robot . ”  Cheetahs are the fastest creatures on earth , and they derive their speed and power from the flexion of their spines, ” says Jie Yin, a researcher in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of North Carolina.

To reproduce this movement , the robot is lined with small channels in which we pump and release air . It quickly alternates between two stable states, one where the legs touch the ground and the other where the robot takes off. “  The passage between the two states releases a significant amount of energy, which allows the robot to quickly exert a force against the ground. The robot “gallops”  on the surface, with moments when it is in suspension, “explains Jie Yin.

Current soft robots only crawl on the surface without leaving the ground, which considerably limits their speed. Where the fastest soft robots are limited to speeds of 0.8 times their body length per second, LEAP ( Leveraging Elastic instabilities for Amplified Performance ) reaches 2.7 times their body length per second, or speed three times higher. Thanks to the force exerted by its movement, it is also able to climb steep slopes.

From rescue to industry: promising applications

The performance of LEAP does not stop there: by replacing the legs with fins, the researchers were able to make it swim at a speed of 0.78 times the length of body per second, against 0.7 times for the swimming robot the fastest. ”  We have also demonstrated the use of several flexible robots working together, such as pliers, to grab objects ,” says Jie Yin. By regulating the force exerted by the robots, they managed to lift objects as delicate as an egg and weighing 10 kilos or more . ”

According to the researchers, the margin of progress for this technology is still significant, which means that this new speed record should soon be broken. The only difficulty is to maintain the stability of the robot, since the flexion angle is difficult to control in a very short period of time.

The university is already in contact with several private companies to integrate this type of robot. “  It could be used in search and rescue, where speed is essential, or in industrial robotics. Imagine, for example, a production chain handling fragile objects, but much faster, ”enthuses Jie Yin. The study was published in the journal Science Advance.