Robotic vehicle's soft engine provides torque without bending

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The only vehicles that can survive falls and keep driving through rough terrain tend to be in movies, but scientists have created a small vehicle that can do just that.

A small vehicle with squishy tires and a soft motor survived falls and kept moving over rocks and under water, suggesting the concept could be useful for everything from disaster rescue to exploration of other planets, according to researchers at Rutgers University.

While squishy tires are helpful to a soft robot, the real leap for the scientists is in their soft motor, which provides torque without bending -- the results of working to eliminate metal from the vehicle so that it would be unaffected by electromagnetic fields in harsh environments.

"If you build a robot or vehicle with hard components, you have to have many sophisticated joints so the whole body can handle complex or rocky terrain," Xiangyu Gong, a doctoral student at Rutgers, said in a press release. "For us, the whole design is very simple, but it works very well because the whole body is soft and can negotiate complex terrain."

The design and construction, detailed in a study published in the journal Advanced Materials, employed elastomerica rotary actuators based on pneumatically-driven peristaltic motion inspired by the way humans and animals move food down the esophagus.

The consolidated wheel and motor rotates without bending, playing into a unique wheel and axle configuration connected to the soft wheels. The parts of the vehicle were 3D printed using silicone rubber, carrying a softness somewhere between a silicone spatula and a relaxed human calf muscle.

The scientists said future development will be focused on vehicles that can work underwater on rugged lakebeds, conduct search and rescue missions in extreme locations, shock-absorbing vehicles used as landers with parachutes and possibly elbow-like systems with limbs.

"The introduction of a wheel and axle assembly in soft robotics should enable vast improvement in the manipulation and mobility of devices," Dr. Aaron Mazzeo, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Rutgers. "We would very much like to continue developing soft motors for future applications, and develop the science to understand the requirements that improve their performance."

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