What is Soft Robotics?

Optimus Prime is a good example of a robot with a lot of rigid components, but a soft, warm interior. Metaphorically, anyway.

Here at Deep Core Data, we’re big fans of robotics. In our blog, we’ve talked about machine learning and how far Artificial Intelligence research has advanced, but we haven’t gone much into the physical aspect of robots. When you picture a robot, you might think of a machine arm in a factory, the automatons found on Disney rides, or maybe even a Transformer. Something hard, and unyielding, composed entire out of hard metals, cables, and motors.

But what if our future robot overlords could be made just a little bit… softer?

The metal and gears that make up the common image of a robot work for much of the technology industry and many of the factories where they’re predominantly used, but for some industries, a gentler touch is required.Soft robotics are robots created using soft materials such as silicone and elastomers, and are often controlled using pneumatics. Some, like the robotic arms designed and created by Soft Robotics, Inc, a Boston-area startup, are still mostly mechanical, but they use soft silicone grips for handling delicate and oddly shaped items, such as balls or fresh produce.

The medical industry can also benefit from the development of soft robotics. While surgical robots have made a lot of progress towards making operations less invasive, they’re still not 100% safe or even cost effective. You see, surgical robots require a complex feedback systems in order to know how force to apply when performing surgeries in order to avoid damaging delicate organs. The da Vinci surgical robot, one of the best known robotic medical systems, costs about $2 million to make, and can increase the cost of surgery by about $2500. On top of that, despite achieving a decent amount of success, the Surgical Institute still faces complaints of sepsis, internal injuries, and ruptured veins and arteries.

Soft robotics, on the other hand, can be made by 3D printers for far less, and the rubbery appendages are likely to cause far less damage. Even better, due to the pliable nature of the materials used – primarily elastomers, otherwise known as stretchy plastics – soft robots can work better in smaller, or strangely shaped areas.

The thing to remember about soft robots is that they’re not necessarily made out of soft materials; it’s just that the interaction forces at joints are not primarily rigid. What this means is that, while the frame of a robot may still be made of metal, it could be controlled using tendon-like elastics, or include spring cushioning around joints that aren’t meant to bend far. This would make robots lighter and cheaper to produce, and they would have a more dynamic range of movement, due to the reduced need for motors and actuators.

MIT’s soft robotic hand can pick up almost everything without dropping or damaging it, and it doesn’t even need to be reprogrammed for each individual object. Image courtesy of mit.edu

Many soft robots are inspired by bio-engineering; that is to say, the way the bodies of living creatures are composed and controlled. Currently, one of the more popular designs scientists have been exploring is a set of robotic tentacles for grasping and manipulating objects. Engineers at the University of Iowa have even created a tentacle so small and gentle it can curl around and pick up ants without crushing them. The end intent for this project is to create a soft robot small enough and autonomous to travel through veins and be used in microscopic surgery.

The reason tentacles are such a popular template for soft robotics is because of the lack of a skeletal structure in octopi. They are completely soft organisms with a wide range of movement and capabilities. Everyone knows the story about the octopus who escaped its tank at night, and one of the main complications with even keeping octopuses in tanks is how easily they can slip through even the tiniest of cracks. This is exactly the sort of flexibility soft roboticists hope to duplicate, and they may soon even be on their way.

Just this August 24, a team of engineers at Harvard University 3D printed an entirely autonomous soft robotic octopus. This tiny octopus, no bigger than the palm of your hand, is powered by chemical reactions. A reaction inside the octopus turns hydrogen peroxide, stored initially as a liquid fuel, into a gas, which flows through a circuit into the octopus’s arms, causing them to raise and lower.

It may not seem like an impressive accomplishment, since there are many robots that can wave their arms, but what makes this robot unique is that it entirely lacks anything resembling metal parts.There are no batteries, no external control system, just a little robot waving its arms based on a soft analog of a simple electronic oscillator. The engineers hope that, having accomplished this small feat, they can go on to create similar robotic octopi that can crawl across a surface, swim, and even interact with their environment.

Right now, the little octobot is a proof of concept, and it’ll take some time before engineers can create a squishy robot capable of worming its way beneath piles of rubble to help find and rescue trapped humans, one of the many proposed applications for such technology. The common robot isn’t even going to completely lose its rigid structure just yet, but the development of soft robotics has numerous applications, from the advancement of prosthetics to limiting the damage caused by mechanical hands in warehouses. As technology progresses, robots are likely to become a common part of society, living alongside humans and making our jobs easier. They just might not be as Terminator-like as we expected.

2017-01-29T18:06:21+00:00

About the Author:

Andrew is a technical writer for Deep Core Data. He has been writing creatively for 10 years, and has a strong background in graphic design. He enjoys reading blogs about the quirks and foibles of technology, gadgetry, and writing tips.

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