A research team, jointly led by Professor Jiyun Kim and Professor Jonbum Bae from the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), has developed an innovative “soft valve” technology that promises to revolutionize the field of soft robotics. This groundbreaking technology integrates sensors and control valves into soft robots while maintaining their inherent softness and adaptability.
Traditional soft robots often combined soft bodies with rigid electronic components for sensing and control, limiting their flexibility and safety. However, the research team’s approach challenges this constraint by creating soft analogs of sensors and control valves that operate without electricity. These tube-shaped components can detect external stimuli and precisely control robotic motion using only air pressure, eliminating the need for electricity-dependent parts.
The key advantage of these all-soft valves is their safety, making them suitable for underwater operations or environments where electrical components could pose risks, such as sparks. Additionally, these components are cost-effective, with each valve costing approximately 800 Korean Won.
The researchers showcased various applications for this technology, including universal tongs capable of delicately handling fragile items and wearable elbow assist robots designed to reduce muscle strain during repetitive or strenuous tasks. The elbow support automatically adjusts according to the user’s arm angle, significantly reducing the force exerted on the elbow.
The soft valve operates by utilizing air flow within a tube-shaped structure, controlled by tension applied to one end of the tube. This accordion-like motion allows for precise and flexible movements without the need for electrical power. The researchers also demonstrated the programmability of these components, enabling customized adjustments to suit specific situations and requirements.
This soft valve technology represents a significant step toward fully soft, electronics-free robots capable of autonomous operation. It has the potential to enhance safety and adaptability across various industries, marking a crucial milestone in the evolution of soft robotics.
The research received support from organizations including Korea’s National Research Foundation (NRF), Korea Institute of Materials Science (KIMS), and Korea Evaluation Institute of Industrial Technology (KEIT).