Robotics Tech Digest - March 2017

Chip that pumps water

Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers have developed a chip that is able to pump sugars and water through itself for several days without any external pump or moving parts. The chip takes its inspiration from biology: plants are able to suck up water from soil and eliminate waste sugar from their leaves through vessels called xylem and phloem. The engineers joined two plastic slides together through which were drilled xylem- and phloem-like vessels. Then they filled the xylem and phloem with water, and water and sugar, respectively. They then placed a semipermeable membrane between the two slides. Finally they added another membrane over the phloem slide on which they placed a sugar cube to mimic the sugar production of a plant’s leaves. They then fed water into the chip from a tank. The device passively pumped water from the tank through itself and out into a beaker for several days. 
The team says the passive pumping chip could be used as a hydraulic actuator for robots, and a sugar powered pump.

Sensitive skin

A team of researchers from the University of Glasgow has developed an energy harvesting, electronic ‘skin’. The skin is made from single-layer graphene and acts as a touch or pressure sensor. In a video a prosthetic hand with this tactile feedback ‘skin’ applied is seen grasping a soft ball with very little deformation of the ball. The skin is able to detect minimum pressures of 0.11 kPa. The researchers are currently working on a prosthetic hand made from the skin which is expected to cost USD350 and is powered by an integrated photovoltaic cell under the touch sensitive graphene coating, providing it with energy autonomy and better portability which are both beneficial if the device is being used all day. The hand and skin have applications in both robotics and as a coating for prosthetics. 

Yummy gelatine robot

Researchers from Intelligent Systems Laboratory at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland have created a soft robotic actuator made of gelatine that is edible and digestible. The small, 5cm-long wormlike robot is filled with air or fluid that reacts with chemicals to make it move. When two actuators are combined to form a pair they can act as a grabber. The work is still in early stages but the scientist see potential for use in drug delivery.

Folding robot

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is developing the Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (PUFFER) – a robot that can fold itself up flat. Its ability to do this has proved a boon for investigating areas that a rover vehicle would normally have difficulty exploring – such as steep slopes or behind sand dunes. It can even drop into pits and investigate overhangs. Several PUFFERs could fold flat, be stacked, then transported by a larger rover robot until needed for deployment. The team envisage the bot being used to explore extra-terrestrial planets and inhospitable environments on earth such as volcanos and the Antarctic (where tests of the robot have already been conducted).  

Leggy robots

Scientists from Tohoku University in Japan have demonstrated that by changing a quadruped robot’s understanding of speed it can spontaneously change its gait between different patterns leading to increased efficiency. The scientists used a decentralised system to control each leg; it senses weight on corresponding legs to know whether to support the robot or not. They stated that the energy efficiency of the robot’s movement was equal to that of a horse. They see the method being useful for adaptive leg robots working in disaster areas and user-friendly legged entertainment robots.


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