Variable Stiffness Actuator for Soft Robotics Using Dielectric Elastomer and Low-Melting-Point Alloy
A novel variable stiffness actuator composed of a dielectric elastomer actuator (DEA) and a low-melting-point-alloy (LMPA) embedded silicone substrate is demonstrated. The device which we call variable stiffness dielectric elastomer actuator (VSDEA) enables functional soft robots with a simplified structure, where the DEA generates a bending actuation and the LMPA provides controllable stiffness between soft and rigid states by Joule heating. The entire structure of VSDEA is made of soft silicones with an elastic modulus of less than 1 MPa providing a high compliance when the LMPA is active. The device has the dimension of 40 mm length × 10 mm width × 1 mm thickness, with mass of 1 g. We characterize VSDEA in terms of the actuation stroke angle, the blocked force, and the reaction force against a forced displacement. The results show the controllable actuation angle and the blocked force up to 23.7 ° and 2.4 mN in the soft state, and 0.6 ° and 2.1 mN in the rigid state. Compared to an actuator without the LMPA, VSDEA exhibits 90× higher rigidity. We develop a VSDEA gripper where the mass of active parts is 2 g, which is able to successfully hold an object mass of 11 g, exhibiting the high performance of the actuator.