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For complex robotic tasks (e.g., manipulation, locomotion), the lack of knowledge of precise interaction models, the difficulties to precisely measure the task associated physical quantities (e.g., position of contact points, interaction forces) in real-time, the finite sampling time of digital control loops and the non-collocation of sensors and transducers have negative effects on performance and stability of robots when using simple force or simple movement controllers. To cope with these issues, a new compact design for high performance actuators specifically adapted for integration in robotic mechanisms is presented. This design makes use of a mechanical differential as its central element. Results shown that differential coupling between an intrinsically high impedance transducer and an intrinsically low impedance mechanical spring provides the same benefits as serial coupling, but in a more compact and simple design. This new actuator, named Differential Elastic Actuator (DEA), provides interesting design implementations, especially for rotational actuators used for mobile robot locomotion.