This vacuum-activated modular robot is equally nasty and neat

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Soft robots are a major area of research right now, but the general paradigm seems to be that you pump something (a muscle or tube) full of something else (air, fluid) causing it to change its shape. But a robot from Swiss roboticists does the opposite: its little muscles tense when the air in them is removed. It’s cool — but it also looks kind of gross.

I mean, come on:

Each little section has several muscles, each of which can be contracted to different degrees to twist that section and exert force in some direction. All in one direction and the bot bends over; do it rhythmically and it can walk, or at any rate wriggle along. Or the vacuum could be let out in a suction cup, allowing the bot to attach securely to a wall, as  you see up top.

It was developed by Jamie Paik and Matt Robertson at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), who describe it in a paper published in the new journal Science Robotics.

And although other robot-like devices have used vacuum for various purposes — we had one on stage that used vacuum to safely grip fragile items — the researchers claim this is the first bot that works entirely by vacuum. The contractive action created by the vacuum isn’t just unique, it’s practical, Paik told me in an email.

Bending. I warned you it looked gross!

“Compared to expanding actuators, contraction is more similar to the function of biological muscle,” she said. “Without going in to more precise and detailed mimicry, this might be functionally enough an advantage in terms of applications; to mimic real muscles in cases when you’d like to work with/augment/assist body joints (as in wearable devices), and not introduce other modes of forces or motion that might impede natural function.”

It’s also totally modular, so if you want fingers or an arm made out of them, that works, and a huge, horrible snake of them is an option too. (I’d prefer you didn’t.)

“The full range of geometry and performance possible is still under investigation, but many other shapes have been tested in our lab, and the general idea is still open to many more,” wrote Paik. “Ultimately, this modular kit would be a household staple tool to automate objects or execute simple but diverse tasks (holding a nail while hammering, cleaning a refrigerator overnight, looking for lost objects around the house). Or it would be building blocks for an active wearable robots that can assist/give feedback to the user.”

Currently that testing is all manual — you have to assemble each piece and test it by hand — but the team is working on automated tools that could virtually assemble and test different configurations.

The downside of this technique is that, because vacuum pumps aren’t exactly lightweight or portable, the robot must remain tethered to one.

“Pneumatic pumps have not been optimized for portability, since they are usually used in fixed settings,” Paik explained. “Hopefully these will improve as quickly as quadrotor technology has.”

It must be said that it’s not quite as sexy as a drone you can fly in your backyard, but if Paik and Robertson’s ideas pan out, this could be a precursor to a technology as ubiquitous as those drones.