Soft robots can undergo large elastic deformations and adapt to complex shapes. However, they lack the structural strength to withstand external loads due to the intrinsic compliance of fabrication materials (silicone or rubber). In this paper, we present a novel stiffness modulation approach that controls the robot’s stiffness on-demand without permanently affecting the intrinsic compliance of the elastomeric body. Inspired by concentric tube robots, this approach uses a Nitinol tube as the backbone, which can be slid in and out of the soft robot body to achieve robot pose or stiffness modulation. To validate the proposed idea, we fabricated a tendon-driven concentric tube (TDCT) soft robot and developed the model based on Cosserat rod theory. The model is validated in different scenarios by varying the joint-space tendon input and task-space external contact force. Experimental results indicate that the model is capable of estimating the shape of the TDCT soft robot with an average root-mean-square error (RMSE) of 0.90 (0.56% of total length) mm and average tip error of 1.49 (0.93% of total length) mm. Simulation studies demonstrate that the Nitinol backbone insertion can enhance the kinematic workspace and reduce the compliance of the TDCT soft robot by 57.7%. Two case studies (object manipulation and soft laparoscopic photodynamic therapy) are presented to demonstrate the potential application of the proposed design.
Journal of Mechanisms and Robotics Open Issues