The Advancements of Soft Valve Technology in AI Robotics
Soft inflatable robots are gaining traction in industries that prioritize safety and adaptability. However, integrating sensing and control systems while maintaining softness and form factor has been a challenge. In response to this obstacle, a team of researchers from UNIST has developed a groundbreaking solution called “soft valve” technology. This innovative technology combines sensors and control valves in a completely soft and flexible manner.
Traditional soft robots relied on rigid electronic components for perception purposes. The research team has introduced a unique approach to address this limitation. They have created soft analogs of sensors and control valves that operate without electricity. These tube-shaped components serve two functions: detecting external stimuli and controlling movement using air pressure. By eliminating the need for electricity-dependent components, these all-soft valves enable safe operation underwater or in environments at risk of sparks, while also reducing the weight burden on robotic systems. Additionally, each component is affordable, costing approximately 800 Won.
Professor Kim explains, “Previous soft robots had flexible bodies but relied on hard electronic parts for stimulus detection sensors and drive control units. Our study focuses on making both sensors and drive control parts using soft materials.”
The research team has successfully demonstrated various applications of this groundbreaking technology. They have developed universal tongs that delicately handle fragile items like potato chips, preventing breakage caused by excessive force exerted by conventional rigid robot hands. Additionally, they have created wearable elbow assist robots that reduce muscle burden caused by repetitive tasks or strenuous activities involving arm movements. The elbow support automatically adjusts based on the angle of the user’s arm, resulting in a 63% average decrease in the force exerted on the elbow when wearing the robot.
The Functionality of the Soft Valve
The soft valve operates by utilizing air flow within a tube-shaped structure. Applying tension to one end of the tube compresses the helically wound thread inside, controlling the inflow and outflow of air. This accordion-like motion enables precise and flexible movements without the need for electrical power.
The research team has also discovered that by programming different structures or numbers of threads within the tube, they can accurately control airflow variations. This programmability allows for customized adjustments to suit specific situations and requirements, providing flexibility in driving unit response even when consistent external forces are applied to the tube.
Professor Bae expressed excitement about this breakthrough, saying, “These newly developed components can be easily employed using material programming alone, completely eliminating the need for electronic devices. This advancement will significantly contribute to the progress of various wearable systems.”
Paving the Way for Fully Soft Autonomous Robots
The development of this groundbreaking soft valve technology marks a significant step towards fully soft, electronics-free robots capable of autonomous operation. It is a crucial milestone for enhancing safety and adaptability across numerous industries.
Various organizations, including Korea’s National Research Foundation (NRF), Korea Institute of Materials Science (KIMS), and Korea Evaluation Institute of Industrial Technology (KEIT), have provided support for this research.