From left: Top circle – Professor Jiyun Kim; bottom circle – Professor Joonbum Bae; Junsoo Kim; Jun Kyu Choe. (Image: UNIST)

Soft inflatable robots have emerged as a promising paradigm for applications that require inherent safety and adaptability. However, the integration of sensing and control systems in these robots without compromising their softness, form factor, or capabilities, has posed significant challenges. Addressing this obstacle, a research team jointly led by Professor Jiyun Kim (Department of Materials Science and Engineering, UNIST) and Professor Jonbum Bae (Department of Mechanical Engineering, UNIST) has developed groundbreaking “soft valve” technology — an all-in-one solution that integrates sensors and control valves while maintaining complete softness.

Traditionally, soft robot bodies coexisted with rigid electronic components for perception purposes. The study conducted by this research team introduces a novel approach to overcome this limitation by creating soft analogs of sensors and control valves that operate without electricity. The resulting tube-shaped part serves dual functions: detecting external stimuli and precisely controlling driving motion using only air pressure. By eliminating the need for electricity-dependent components, these all-soft valves enable safe operation underwater or in environments where sparks may pose risks — while simultaneously reducing weight burdens on robotic systems. Moreover, each component is inexpensive.

The research team showcased various applications utilizing this groundbreaking technology. They created universal tongs capable of delicately picking up fragile items such as potato chips — preventing breakage caused by the excessive force exerted by conventional rigid robot hands. Additionally, they successfully employed these all-soft components to develop wearable elbow-assist robots designed to reduce muscle burden caused by repetitive tasks or strenuous activities involving arm movements. The elbow support automatically adjusts according to the angle at which an individual’s arm is bent — a breakthrough contributing to a 63% average decrease in the force exerted on the elbow.

The soft valve operates by utilizing air flow within a tube-shaped structure. When tension is applied to one end of the tube, a helically wound thread inside compresses it, controlling inflow and outflow of air. This accordion-like motion allows for precise and flexible movements without relying on electrical power.

Furthermore, the research team confirmed that by programming different structures or numbers of threads within the tube, they could accurately control airflow variations. This programmability enables customized adjustments to suit specific situations and requirements — providing flexibility in driving unit response even with consistent external forces applied to the end of the tube.

“These newly developed components can be easily employed using material programming alone, eliminating electronic devices,” said Professor Bae. “This breakthrough will significantly contribute to advancements in various wearable systems.”

This soft valve technology marks a significant step toward fully soft, electronics-free robots capable of autonomous operation — a crucial milestone for enhancing safety and adaptability across numerous industries.