King's CoRe has explored a new hybrid actuation principle combining pneumatic and tendon-driven actuators for a soft robotic manipulator. The fusion of these two actuation principles leads to an overall antagonistic actuation mechanism whereby pneumatic actuation opposes tendon actuation – a mechanism commonly found in animals where muscles can oppose each other to vary joint stiffness.
Inspiration has been taken from the octopus who belongs to the class of Cephalopoda; the octopus uses its longitudinal and transversal muscles in its arms to achieve varied motion patterns; activating both sets of muscles, the octopus can control the arm stiffness over a wide range.
The approach mimics this behaviour and achieves comparable motion patterns, including bending, elongation and stiffening. It combines the advantages of tendon-driven and pneumatic actuated systems and goes beyond what current soft, flexible robots can achieve: because the new robot structure is effectively an inflatable, sleeve, it can be pumped up to its fully inflated volume and, also, completely deflated and shrunk. Since, in the deflated state, it comprises just its outer "skin" and tendons, the robot can be com-pressed to a very small size, many times smaller when compared to its fully-inflated state. This work was presented at IROS 2014.