We propose a novel, high degree of freedom variable stiffness joint for use in a miniature snake-like robot for minimally invasive surgeries via granular jamming. By pulling granule filled membrane-columns under vacuum, the columns and joint stiffen as the granular matter begin to jam. In our experiments, we achieved a four-fold increase in stiffness, and the stiffness can be achieved while the columns are straight or bent. Current flexible manipulators in industrial and medical robotics have followed two dominating methods of actuation and stiffness control. The first method is the continuum manipulator, which utilizes tendons or rods to bend the manipulator in a continuous fashion. The second method is classified as the highly articulated robot, where the manipulator is comprised of multiple segments linked by motor-driven universal joints. Like the latter, our manipulator is highly articulated, however stiffness of each joint can be independently controlled by the granular jamming principle. This paper studies the effect of grain type and vacuum pressure for stiffness tuning. We found that granules with a matte surface were able to achieve higher stiffnesses, with a cube shape exhibiting the highest stiffness, but at the cost of high levels of hysteresis.

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