Soft robots are not known for their speed, with most being created for their soft touch for handling delicate objects, or used in water for their locomotive properties. Researchers from North Carolina State University have designed a soft, flexible robot that was inspired by the world’s fastest land animal — the cheetah. The large cats make use of their flexible spines to achieve and maintain that super speed, which the researchers capitalized on with the LEAP (Leveraging Elastic instabilities for Amplified Performance) robot.
Instead of biological muscles and bones, the LEAP makes use of a silicon body equipped with a pair of soft pneumatic actuators and a flexible mechanical spring-loaded spine. The robot runs, or flexes rather, by pumping air in and out of those actuators, which allows stored energy to be released, triggering the spring-loaded spine from one state to another. This locomotion method produces a jumping motion that propels the robot forward at a rate of 2.7 body lengths per second.
The LEAP robot can also be outfitted with a fin and use its back and forth flexibility to swim, although it does drop in speed, only achieving a maximum speed of 0.78 body lengths per second. According to a recent paper from the researchers, LEAP is still the fastest soft robot over others, which reportedly max out at 0.8 on land and 0.7 in the water.
The researchers have created several LEAP robots, each measuring in at 2.8 inches long, and weighing just 1.6 ounces. They can work together to perform different functions as well, such as surrounding an object and lifting it in the air by simultaneously flexing their spines. The researchers state that potential applications for the LEAP robot could include search and rescue and industrial manufacturing applications.