Robots Get Faster with Adaptable Feet

Flexible feet help the hexapod robot walk up to 40% faster.

One of the biggest problems with robots is that they're slow — mostly because they're a little tippy.

Researchers at the University of California-San Diego have found a way to make robots 40% faster: flexible feet.

The soft robotic foot is reminiscent of the Versaball Gripper from Empire Robotics, which is essentially a sand-filled stress ball that can conform to any shape and safely pick it up. 

Like the Versaball, the robotic foot conforms to the surface, which could make robots much faster and more reliable on stone and wooden surfaces during everything from search-and-rescue missions to space exploration. 

The robotic feet are flexible spheres made from a latex membrane filled with coffee grounds. Similar to the Versaball, they grip using granular jamming, which means the robot steps down, forms to the surface, and then solidifies. As the foot lifts, the process restarts. 

To test the feet, they retrofitted an off-the-shelf hexapod robot with these high-tech tootsies. Not only was the robot faster on slopes and uneven terrain, but the feet, when unactivated, worked well on flat surfaces. 

Next, the team will put sensors on the bottom of the feet to help identify the terrain and which mode is best suited to the surface. It will make the feet less like the robotic gripper, and more like the human counterpart.

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