UC San Diego's electronics-free soft robot only needs pressurized air to move

It could be used for robots that work in MRI machines and mine shafts.

David Baillot/University of California San Diego

Soft robots are more flexible than traditional machines and have the potential to squeeze into and explore more places. However, most of them need electronic components like circuit boards, valves and pumps to work. Those components are typically heavy, expensive and have to be tethered to the machines outside their body. Now, engineers from the University of California San Diego have developed a four-legged soft robot that doesn't need any of those to work — in fact, the robot doesn't need any electronic component at all.

Their soft robot has an onboard system of pneumatic circuits, which are made up of tubes and soft valves. The light-weight and low-cost pneumatic system only needs a constant source of pressurized air to move and power the robot. See, each of the robot's legs is made of three connected pneumatic cylindrical chambers. They bend and move when pressurized, while a soft valve switches can switch the direction they're taking.

Team leader Michael T. Tolley said:

"With our approach, you could make a very complex robotic brain. Our focus here was to make the simplest air-powered nervous system needed to control walking."

The team believes their work is a step towards full-autonomous electronics-free robots. In the future, the technology could be used to create machines that can operate in environments where electronics can't function, including MRIs and mine shafts. It could also be used to make low-cost toys. For now, the engineers are looking to improve the way the robot moves so it can walk on natural terrains and uneven surfaces, allowing it to navigate a variety of environments.