Bubble casting soft robotics

Cover for Nature Magazine 11 November 2021


Inspired by living organisms, soft robots are developed from intrinsically compliant materials, enabling continuous motions that mimic animal and vegetal movement. In soft robots, the canonical hinges and bolts are replaced by elastomers assembled into actuators programmed to change shape following the application of stimuli, for example pneumatic inflation. The morphing information is typically directly embedded within the shape of these actuators, whose assembly is facilitated by recent advances in rapid prototyping techniques. Yet, these manufacturing processes have limitations in scalability, design flexibility and robustness. Here we demonstrate a new all-in-one methodology for the fabrication and the programming of soft machines. Instead of relying on the assembly of individual parts, our approach harnesses interfacial flows in elastomers that progressively cure to robustly produce monolithic pneumatic actuators whose shape can easily be tailored to suit applications ranging from artificial muscles to grippers. We rationalize the fluid mechanics at play in the assembly of our actuators and model their subsequent morphing. We leverage this quantitative knowledge to program these soft machines and produce complex functionalities, for example sequential motion obtained from a monotonic stimulus. We expect that the flexibility, robustness and predictive nature of our methodology will accelerate the proliferation of soft robotics by enabling the assembly of complex actuators, for example long, tortuous or vascular structures, thereby paving the way towards new functionalities stemming from geometric and material nonlinearities.