Theses Doctoral

Soft actuator and agile soft robot

Xia, Boxi

Robots play an important part in many aspects of our society by doing repetitive, dangerous, or precision tasks. Most existing robots are made of rigid components, which lack passive compliance and pose a challenge in adapting to the environment and safe human-robot interaction. Rigid robots may be equipped with sensors and programmed with proprioceptive feedback control to achieve active compliance, but this may fail in the event of unforeseen situations or sensor failure.

In contrast, animals have evolved flexible or soft body parts to help them adapt to changing environments. Soft robotics is an emerging field in robotics, drawing inspiration from nature by integrating soft material into the actuator and mechanical design. With the inclusion of soft material, soft actuators and robots can deform actively/passively, making it possible to sense, absorb impact, and adapt to its environment with deformation. However, while soft actuators/robots have superior properties to rigid ones, they are often challenging to manufacture and control precisely. In addition, they may suffer from slow speed and material degradation. Thus, in this thesis, we aim to address the issues in developing high-performance soft actuators and soft robots.

The thesis is divided into two parts. In the first part, we focus on improving the manufacturability and performance of a self-contained soft actuator originated in the Creative Machines Lab. The soft actuator is composed of a cured silicone-ethanol mixture embedded with heating coils. When the coils are electrically actuated, ethanol trapped inside undergoes liquid-vapor transitions, and thus the actuator undergoes extreme volume change. While this actuator exhibits high strain and high stress, it is very slow to actuate, has limited life cycles, and requires molds to manufacture.

The first part of the thesis will address these issues. Specifically, in chapter 2, we discuss using multi-material 3D printing to automate the manufacturing of silicone-ethanol composite. In chapter 3, we discuss using laser-cut flexible Kirigami patterns to improve the manufacturability of its heating element. Chapter 4 characterizes its actuation profile and addresses improvements to the thermal conductivity by infusing thermally conductive fillers.

Soft actuation is an actively researched area; however, many high-performance soft actuators are challenging to manufacture and thus are less accessible to the general robotics community. Conventional actuators such as electric motors are widely available but lack flexibility. Therefore, the second part of the thesis aims at combining rigid motors with soft materials to design and control high-performance hybrid soft robots. Simulation is a good way to evaluate and optimize robot design and control. However, existing simulators that support motor-driven soft robots have limited features. Chapter 5 discusses this issue and presents a physically based real-time soft robot simulator capable of simulating motor-driven soft robots. In addition, chapter 5 presents the design and control of a 3D printed hybrid soft quadruped robot. Chapter 6 presents the design and control of a 3D printed hybrid soft humanoid robot.

The two parts of the thesis aim to improve aspects in soft actuators and soft robots. In conclusion, we summarize the lessons learned in developing soft actuators/robots and new possibilities and challenges for advancing soft robotics research.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Mechanical Engineering
Thesis Advisors
Lipson, Hod
Agrawal, Sunil K.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 4, 2022