The future of robotics has seen a move away from rigid actuators and stiff materials towards soft robots and soft actuators. Soft robotics plays a pivotal role in tasks where rigid robots have failed, such as invasive surgery, prosthetics, and automation tasks involving delicate or irregular objects.
Inflatable actuators are actuators that expand to create movement. They can be filled with pressurized gas or liquid. Historically, inflatable bladders were pneumatic systems, but recent developments at Artimus Robotics are producing electric inflating actuators, or digital bladders. These actuators have the advantage of being able to achieve large strokes, little friction, and offer distributed force. They don’t have to rely on high magnetic fields or high temperatures, both of which can be dangerous for orthotics or surgery.
Inflatable actuators have various motion paths, including contraction, expanding, twisting, and bending. They all rely on the same physical properties, even if they create different motions.
Inflatable actuators have many uses. One of the most obvious advantages to soft robotics and soft actuators is their intrinsic safety and the ability to mimic biological systems. Inflatable actuators and soft robotics will likely not replace existing rigid solutions, but they can offer advantages alongside them. In automation, inflatable actuators can complement systems where compliant soft grippers are desired because they can form around delicate objects. This bypasses the need for complex control algorithms.
Inflatable actuators are particularly useful in the medical world, too. They can be used in a noninvasive sense, such as an active support splint to assist wrist motion or a robotic glove for hand rehabilitation. They can also be used for surgical applications, such as a catheterization tool or a cuff actuator to wrap around nerves for nerve stimulation.
Inflatable actuators will play a prominent role in the future of robotics because of their large strokes, complex motion, and inherent safety. These actuators are able to mimic biological systems at a low cost, and they give way to a new world of applications.