soft robotVacuum-actuated muscle-inspired pneumatic structures. VAMPs. Developed at Harvard University and being adapted for commercial use by Soft Robotics, Inc., VAMP’s use vacuum instead of pressure to actuate a flexible body and cause it to contract. The action is likened to the way the biceps muscle works.

This is a unique approach that carries a number of advantages over traditional pneumatic and hydraulic actuators, especially in applications involving medical devices. VAMPs are elastomeric and soft. Their interior is filled with honeycomb-like pockets. When a vacuum is applied, those pockets collapse, causing the VAMP to contract like a muscle. This is an inherently safe system in that if the actuator fails it simply stops working, whereas pressure-based systems can blow apart.

Because they are soft, they are a more amenable system to have operating in close proximity to humans. Because they collapse instead of expand, they are better for use in constricted spaces.

The machines that Soft Robotics is currently working on are intended for picking/placing delicate objects, like produce. But it seems that the VAMP technology would be especially useful in medical devices. The development of this technology certainly merits watching.