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  1. Simulating soft robots in cluttered environments remains an open problem due to the challenge of capturing complex dynamics and interactions with the environment. Fur- thermore, fast simulation is desired for quickly exploring robot behaviors in the context of motion planning. In this paper, we examine a particular class of inflated-beam soft growing robots called “vine robots,” and present a dynamics simulator that captures general behaviors, handles robot-object interactions, and runs faster than real time. The simulator framework uses a simplified multi-link, rigid-body model with contact constraints. To bridge the sim-to-real gap, we develop methods for fitting model parameters based on video data of a robot in motion and in contact with an environment. We provide examples of simulations, including several with fit parameters, to show the qualitative and quantitative agreement between simulated and real behaviors. Our work demonstrates the capabilities of this high-speed dynamics simulator and its potential for use in the control of soft robots.
  2. Navigation and motion control of a robot to a destination are tasks that have historically been performed with the assumption that contact with the environment is harmful. This makes sense for rigid-bodied robots, where obstacle collisions are fundamentally dangerous. However, because many soft robots have bodies that are low-inertia and compliant, obstacle contact is inherently safe. As a result, constraining paths of the robot to not interact with the environment is not necessary and may be limiting. In this article, we mathematically formalize interactions of a soft growing robot with a planar environment in an empirical kinematic model. Using this interaction model, we develop a method to plan paths for the robot to a destination. Rather than avoiding contact with the environment, the planner exploits obstacle contact when beneficial for navigation. We find that a planner that takes into account and capitalizes on environmental contact produces paths that are more robust to uncertainty than a planner that avoids all obstacle contact.
  3. Pneumatically operated soft growing robots that extend via tip eversion are well-suited for navigation in confined spaces. Adding the ability to interact with the environment using sensors and tools attached to the robot tip would greatly enhance the usefulness of these robots for exploration in the field. However, because the material at the tip of the robot body continually changes as the robot grows and retracts, it is challenging to keep sensors and tools attached to the robot tip during actuation and environment interaction. In this paper, we analyze previous designs for mounting to the tip of soft growing robots, and we present a novel device that successfully remains attached to the robot tip while providing a mounting point for sensors and tools. Our tip mount incorporates and builds on our previous work on a device to retract the robot without undesired buckling of its body. Using our tip mount, we demonstrate two new soft growing robot capabilities: (1) pulling on the environment while retracting, and (2) retrieving and delivering objects. Finally, we discuss the limitations of our design and opportunities for improvement in future soft growing robot tip mounts.
  4. Inflated continuum robots are promising for a variety of navigation tasks, but controlling their motion with a small number of actuators is challenging. These inflated beam robots tend to buckle under compressive loads, producing extremely tight local curvature at difficult-to-control buckle point locations. In this paper, we present an inflated beam robot that uses distributed stiffness changing sections enabled by positive pressure layer jamming to control or prevent buckling. Passive valves are actuated by an electromagnet carried by an electromechanical device that travels inside the main inflated beam robot body. The valves themselves require no external connections or wiring, allowing the distributed stiffness control to be scaled to long beam lengths. Multiple layer jamming elements are stiffened simultaneously to achieve global stiffening, allowing the robot to support greater cantilevered loads and longer unsupported lengths. Local stiffening, achieved by leaving certain layer jamming elements unstiffened, allows the robot to produce "virtual joints" that dynamically change the robot kinematics. Implementing these stiffening strategies is compatible with growth through tip eversion and tendon steering, and enables a number of new capabilities for inflated beam robots and tip-everting robots.
  5. Soft, tip-extending "vine" robots offer a unique mode of inspection and manipulation in highly constrained environments. For practicality, it is desirable that the distal end of the robot can be manipulated freely, while the body remains stationary. However, in previous vine robots, either the shape of the body was fixed after growth with no ability to manipulate the distal end, or the whole body moved together with the tip. Here, we present a concept for shape-locking that enables a vine robot to move only its distal tip, while the body is locked in place. This is achieved using two inextensible, pressurized, tip-extending, chambers that "grow" along the sides of the robot body, preserving curvature in the section where they have been deployed. The length of the locked and free sections can be varied by controlling the extension and retraction of these chambers. We present models describing this shape-locking mechanism and workspace of the robot in both free and constrained environments. We experimentally validate these models, showing an increased dexterous workspace compared to previous vine robots. Our shape-locking concept allows improved performance for vine robots, advancing the field of soft robotics for inspection and manipulation in highly constrained environments.
  6. The field of soft robotics is grounded on the idea that, due to their inherent compliance, soft robots can safely interact with the environment. Thus, the development of effective planning and control pipelines for soft robots should incorporate reliable robot-environment interaction models. This strategy enables soft robots to effectively exploit contacts to autonomously navigate and accomplish tasks in the environment. However, for a class of soft robots, namely vine-inspired, tip-extending or "vine" robots, such interaction models and the resulting planning and control strategies do not exist. In this paper, we analyze the behavior of vine robots interacting with their environment and propose an obstacle-interaction model that characterizes the bending and wrinkling deformation induced by the environment. Starting from this, we devise a novel obstacle-interaction planning method for these robots. We show how obstacle interactions can be effectively leveraged to enlarge the set of reachable workspace for the robot tip, and verify our findings with both simulated and real experiments. Our work improves the capabilities of this new class of soft robot, helping to advance the field of soft robotics.