Control of soft machines using actuators operated by a Braille display†
One strategy for actuating soft machines (e.g., tentacles, grippers, and simple walkers) uses pneumatic inflation of networks of small channels in an elastomeric material. Although the management of a few pneumatic inputs and valves to control pressurized gas is straightforward, the fabrication and operation of manifolds containing many (>50) independent valves is an unsolved problem. Complex pneumatic manifolds—often built for a single purpose—are not easily reconfigured to accommodate the specific inputs (i.e., multiplexing of many fluids, ranges of pressures, and changes in flow rates) required by pneumatic systems. This paper describes a pneumatic manifold comprising a computer-controlled Braille display and a micropneumatic device. The Braille display provides a compact array of 64 piezoelectric actuators that actively close and open elastomeric valves of a micropneumatic device to route pressurized gas within the manifold. The positioning and geometries of the valves and channels in the micropneumatic device dictate the functionality of the pneumatic manifold, and the use of multi-layer soft lithography permits the fabrication of networks in a wide range of configurations with many possible functions. Simply exchanging micropneumatic devices of different designs enables rapid reconfiguration of the pneumatic manifold. As a proof of principle, a pneumatic manifold controlled a soft machine containing 32 independent actuators to move a ball above a flat surface.