That’s some mean rubber, right there.
In the natural world, there are several organisms, animal and plant, that make use of their natural elasticity to perform feats of incredible speed. Examples of this include the Venus flytrap’s snapping jaws or the chameleon’s quick-draw tongue. Researchers from Purdue University took a look at these speedy tricks and thought “could we make a robot do these?” The answer is yes.
The Purdue researchers created several prototypes of soft robots designed to mimic the elastic abilities of nature. It’s actually pretty simple; the robots are made of a flexible polymer and fitted with a pneumatic pump. When air is pumped into them, they stretch beyond their pre-designed shape, storing up energy. When the air is cut, they quickly snap back to their original shape like a rubber band.
For example, a small crane arm was created. When the pressure is on, the claws open, and when it’s cut, they snap shut. Because the shape is predetermined, the motion is swift and precise enough for accurate work; the crane is even able to catch a small bouncing ball right out of the air, not unlike a chameleon tongue or a flytrap.
Speaking of flytraps, a polymer flytrap was created with the same principle. As with the crane, it opens when the air flows and snaps shut when it doesn’t. It takes a couple of seconds for the maw to open, but it can snap shut at an impressive 50 milliseconds.
The researchers believe that their polymer and designs could be used to create new soft robots that could be utilized for all sorts of precise tasks.