Researchers have developed flexible feet that enable robots to walk fast and efficiently on natural, uneven surfaces. The work has applications for search-and-rescue missions as well as space exploration.
Usually, robots are only able to control motion at specific joints. A robot that can control the stiffness and therefore the shape of its feet outperforms traditional designs and is able to adapt to a wide variety of terrains.
The feet are flexible spheres made from a latex membrane filled with coffee grounds. Structures inspired by nature, such as plant roots, and by manmade solutions, such as piles driven into the ground to stabilize slopes, are embedded in the coffee grounds. The feet allow robots to walk faster and grip better because of a mechanism called granular jamming that allows granular media — in this case, the coffee grounds — to go back and forth between behaving like a solid and behaving like a liquid. When the feet hit the ground, they firm up, conforming to the ground underneath and providing solid footing. They then unjam and loosen up when transitioning between steps. The support structures help the flexible feet remain stiff while jammed.
The feet were installed on a commercially available hexapod robot. An onboard system was designed and built that can generate negative pressure to control the jamming of the feet as well as positive pressure to unjam the feet between each step. As a result, the feet can be actively jammed, with a vacuum pump removing air from between the coffee grounds and stiffening the foot. But the feet also can be passively jammed, when the weight of the robot pushes the air out from between the coffee grounds inside, causing them to stiffen.
The robot was tested walking on flat ground, wood chips, and pebbles, with and without the feet. The passive jamming feet performed best on flat ground but active jamming feet do better on loose rocks. The feet also helped the robot’s legs grip the ground better, increasing its speed. The improvements were particularly significant when the robot walked up sloped, uneven terrain.
The researchers quantified exactly how much improvement each foot generated; for example, the foot reduced by 62 percent the depth of penetration in the sand on impact and reduced by 98 percent the force required to pull the foot out when compared to a fully rigid foot.
Next steps include incorporating soft sensors on the bottom of the feet to allow an electronic control board to identify what kind of ground the robot is about to step on and whether the feet need to be jammed actively or passively.