Soft robot climbs walls using vacuum

Scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) have created the first functional robot powered entirely by vacuum. Made up of soft building blocks, it moves by having air sucked out of them. The robot can also be reconfigured to perform different tasks, like climbing vertical walls and grabbing objects.

Inspired by muscle contraction, the robot’s individual soft components are activated when negative pressure is applied to them. The robot uses suction to grab objects or to stick to a smooth wall for climbing, meaning it can achieve a wide range of tasks in both research and in industry.

“What we have is a fully functional robot which is entirely powered by vacuum, which has never been done before,” said EPFL roboticist Matt Robertson who worked on the project. “Previous work has shown individual components powered by vacuum, but never in a complete system.”

Vacuum-powered components are a recent addition to robotics – and, more importantly, they’re safe. Today, most actuators on the market are activated by applying positive pressure, i.e. by injecting air into their components. But containing positive pressure requires stiff high-pressure pneumatics, which also pose a safety threat: in extreme situations, they can explode. By comparison, vacuum-powered actuators are safe, soft, and simple to build.

The robot can be reconfigured by plugging-in extra modules like Lego. A five-module robot can move like a tentacle; a four-module robot with a suction gripper can grab an object and drop it on a target; a three-module robot can crawl on the ground; a two-module robot can be equipped with suction-cup feet to climb a smooth, vertical surface, like glass. The versatility of these robots can be exploited for studying locomotion and for future applications at an industrial level.

This level of reconfiguration means that the robots could also be used around the home. Jamie Paik, a scientist at EPFL said that it could be the robotic equivalent of the Swiss army knife and could be used as an extra hand when trying to hammer a nail into a wall, or left alone to organise your fridge. “You can keep this in your toolbox, ready to help automate simple tasks around the home,” she says.