Inspired by human motor control theory, stiffness control is highly effective in manipulation and human-interactive tasks. The implementation of stiffness control in robotic systems, however, has largely been limited to close-loop control, and suffers from multiple related issues such as limited frequency range, potential stability issue, and lack of contribution to energy efficiency. Variable-stiffness actuator represents a better solution, but the current designs are complex, heavy, and bulky. The approach in this paper seeks to address these issues by using pneumatic actuator as a variable series elasticity actuator, leveraging the compressibility of the working fluid. In this work, a pneumatic actuator is modelled as an elastic element with controllable stiffness and equilibrium point, both of which are functions of air masses in the two chambers. As such, for the implementation of stiffness control in a robotic system, the desired stiffness/equilibrium point can be converted to the desired chamber air masses, and a predictive pressure control approach is developed to control the timing of valve switching to obtain the desired air mass while minimizing control action. Experimental results showed that the new approach in this paper requires less expensive hardware (on-off valve instead of proportional valve), causes less control action in implementation, and provides good control performance by leveraging the inherent dynamics of the actuator.

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