Pneumatic random-access memory for controlling soft robots

July 19, 2021 // By Rich Pell
Pneumatic random-access memory for controlling soft robots
Engineers at the University of California, Riverside say they have developed an air-powered computer memory that can be used to control pneumatic soft robots, which use pressurized air to move soft, rubbery limbs and grippers and are superior to traditional rigid robots for performing delicate tasks.

Existing systems for controlling such soft robots currently require dedicated electromechanical hardware to maintain the actuation state of each independent actuator, which when combined with power, computation, and sensing components adds considerable cost, size, and power demands, thereby limiting the feasibility of soft robots in many important application areas. In their work, the researchers developed a pneumatic memory that uses air - not electricity - to set and maintain the states of large numbers of soft robotic actuators without dedicated electromechanical hardware.

To advance soft robotics toward the future, say the researchers, they looked back to the past. "Pneumatic logic" predates electronic computers and once provided advanced levels of control in a variety of products, from thermostats and other components of climate control systems to player pianos in the early 1900s.

In pneumatic logic, air flows through circuits or channels and air pressure is used to represent on/off or true/false. In modern computers, these logical states are represented by 1s and 0s in code to trigger or end electrical charges.

Pneumatic soft robots need a way to remember and maintain the positions of their moving parts. The researchers realized that if they could create a pneumatic logic "memory" for a soft robot, they could eliminate the electronic memory currently used for that purpose.

The researchers made their pneumatic random-access memory (RAM) chip using microfluidic valves instead of electronic transistors. Originally designed to control the flow of liquids on microfluidic chips, the microfluidic valves can also control the flow of air.

The valves remain sealed against a pressure differential even when disconnected from an air supply line, creating trapped pressure differentials that function as memories and maintain the states of a robot’s actuators. Dense arrays of these valves can perform advanced operations and reduce the expensive, bulky, and power-consuming electronic hardware typically used to control pneumatic robots.

After modifying the microfluidic valves to handle larger air flow rates, the researchers produced

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