Soft Poly-Limbs: Toward a New Paradigm of Mobile Manipulation for Daily Living Tasks

We present the design and development of the fluid-driven, wearable, Soft Poly-Limb (SPL), from the Greek word polys, meaning many. The SPL utilizes the numerous traits of soft robotics to enable a novel approach in providing safe and compliant mobile manipulation assistance to healthy and impaired users. This wearable system equips the user with a controllable additional limb that is capable of complex three-dimensional motion in space. Similar to an elephant trunk, the SPL is able to manipulate objects using a variety of end-effectors, such as suction adhesion or a soft grasper, as well as its entire soft body to conform around an object, able to lift 2.35 times its own weight. To develop these highly articulated soft robotic limbs, we provide a novel set of systematic design rules, obtained through varying geometrical parameters of the SPL via experimentally verified finite-element method (FEM) models. We investigate performance of the limb by testing the lifetime of the new SPL actuators, evaluating its payload capacity, operational workspace, and capability of interacting close to a user via a spatial mobility test. Further, we are able to demonstrate limb controllability through multiple user intent detection modalities. Finally, we explore the limb’s ability to assist in multitasking and pick and place scenarios with varying mounting locations of the SPL around the user’s body. Our results highlight the SPL’s ability to safely interact with the user while demonstrating promising performance in assisting with a wide variety of tasks, in both work and general living settings.