When you hear the word “robot”, what image usually comes to mind? Is it a metallic, boxy machine? A sleek android that talks to people? A robot is a machine that is automatically operated and completes tasks in replacement for humans. Some robots are humanoid and have actions that resemble human movement, such as ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), a robot created by Honda that can walk with two legs (Honda).
What is Soft Robotics?
Soft robotics is a subfield of robotics that involves robots constructed with very compliant materials. These robots can be soft and deformable, or made of flexible materials. The field of soft robotics also includes, but is not limited to, the design of biohybrid devices, living machines, and conformable machines.
What are Some Examples of Soft Robots?
An example of a soft robot is one created recently by Stanford graduate students. This squishy robot is shaped by inflated tubes that are connected into triangles. It is a combination of multiple machines that either hold the inflated tubes together or move the corners of the robot. As motors move the corners of the robot, the overall shape of the robot can change dramatically, which allows the robot to roll in different directions, grab objects, as well as handle objects (Usevitch, Hammond, Schwager, Okamura, Hawkes & Sean Follmer 2020).
Another example of a soft robot is a flexible robotic hand created by researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. This robotic hand can grip onto a wide variety of objects, and sensors attached to the robot can also estimate the size and shape of objects. Since the robot is made out of silicone rubber, it can handle much more delicate objects compared to traditional robots. Delicate objects such as egg, as well as thin objects such as compact can both be safely picked up by this robotic hand (Conner-Simons).
Not only are some soft robots able to handle shape-shift or handle a wide range of objects, researchers from the North Carolina State University have also created a faster soft robot that draws inspiration from the biomechanics of cheetahs. The design of this soft robot has a spring-powered spine, which allows the robot to have two stable states. When the robot switches between those two states, the energy released during that transition allows the robot to exert force against the ground and move across a surface quickly (Tang et al. 2020).
Applications of Soft Robotics
Evidently, there are many different kinds of soft robots, each with varying designs, features, and purpose. As a whole, the features of soft robots lend from traditional robotics, but many soft robots have more novel features that arise from new designs, or the use of different, less conventional materials. This means that soft robots are typically safe-but-sturdy, allowing for potential use in homes or workspaces (Stanford University 2020).
Connor-Simons, A. (2015). Soft robotic hand can pick up and identify a wide array of objects. Retrieved from http://news.mit.edu/2015/soft-robotic-hand-can-pick-and-identify-wide-array-of-objects-0930
Nathan S. Usevitch, Zachary M. Hammond, Mac Schwager, Allison M. Okamura, Elliot W. Hawkes, Sean Follmer. An untethered isoperimetric soft robot. Science Robotics, 2020; 5 (40): eaaz0492 DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aaz0492
(n.d). ASIMO. Retrieved from https://asimo.honda.com/downloads/pdf/honda-asimo-robot-fact-sheet.pdf
(n.d.). Soft Robotics. Retrieved from https://home.liebertpub.com/publications/soft-robotics/616/overview
North Carolina State University. “Inspired by cheetahs, researchers build fastest soft robots yet.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 May 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200508145329.htm>.
Stanford University. “Shape-changing, free-roaming soft robot created.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 March 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200318143711.htm>.
Yichao Tang, Yinding Chi, Jiefeng Sun, Tzu-Hao Huang, Omid H. Maghsoudi, Andrew Spence, Jianguo Zhao, Hao Su and Jie Yin. Leveraging Elastic instabilities for Amplified Performance (LEAP): spine-inspired high-speed and high-force soft robots. Science Advances, 2020 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz6912
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