Soft Robots Disrupting Robotics

New Technologies Offering Commercial Possibilities

The robots that we’re familiar with are unapologetically mechanic, made from conductive, hard material. This is largely due to the availability of rigid materials. However, with the expansion of different uses and emergence of new applications, this is all beginning to change. The availability of new, malleable tools for constructing bots has led to the development of a new sub-field of robotics – soft robots. The term is fairly self explanatory, and quite literally refers to be robots that are made from soft substances like silicone. But what can soft robots do, and who is leading their development?

1. Soft legged robot
At the University of California San Diego, a team of engineers have created a soft robot that can walk on sand, pebbles, rocks and up inclines. It moves using four hollow legs which are pumped full of air. This makes the robotic limbs much lighter and more manoeuvrable than standard mechanical legs. The machine was created using a 3D printer that can print soft and hard materials together. The soft legged bot is tethered to a source board and air pump which restricts its movement, but the university team is working on a smaller version that moves independently. These robots would be incredibly useful in outside environments, perhaps as part of search and rescue missions in difficult terrain.

2. Venus flytrap robot
The industrial robots of today are so dextrous that they can pick up delicate objects without breaking them. However, when it comes to microbots, it’s notoriously difficult to shrink hardware. At the Tampere University of Technology in Finland, researchers have found a new way for smaller robots to physically hold or grab items that doesn’t involve clunky add ons. Their bot is inspired by the Venus Fly Trap plant, except instead of reacting to physical contact, it reacts to light. Light causes a strip of sensitive liquid crystal elastomer to contract, grabbing whatever it has detected. This low power, flexible, small scale solution could be used in scientific experiments, grabbing micro crystals or bundles of cells. According to the team, their next step is to develop colour recognition.

3. Octobot
Late last year, Harvard University announced the development of the first self contained soft robot called the Octobot. As you can imagine, it looks like a mini octopus with eight silicone tentacles. The bot is essentially a pneumatic tube which runs on hydrogen peroxide. The liquid is pumped into the middle of the Octobot’s body where it reacts with platinum to form a gas. The gas expands through the tentacles alternately, causing the soft robot to wiggle around. At the moment, this is cute. . . but not particularly useful. Once sensors and programming is added, the octopus inspired bots will be able to react to its surroundings and perform tasks that regular, rigid machines can’t.

4. Scavenger robot
The ‘scavenger robot’ is the result of work by a UK robotics collaboration based in the city of Bristol. Just like the tube shaped marine creatures called salps, the robot consumes the biomass in water. Unlike salps, it then converts it into electrical energy to fuel itself before ejecting the waste. Its artificial stomach is an MFC, which stands for ‘microbial fuel cell’. The more MFCs, the more power. Unlike normal robots, the scavenger bot doesn’t need to be charged, hooked up to a power source or interfered with in any way. This makes it ideal for hostile environments which are dangerous for humans – one example could be clearing oil spills in the ocean. Hemma Philamore, one of the bot’s creators, describes the robot as acting ‘naturally’ in a natural environment. If that doesn’t blur the lines between real and artificial, nothing does.

5. Robot heart pump
The soft robotic heart pump is another Harvard based project which could massively improve the treatment of heart conditions and failures. Most commonly, repeated heart failure is treated by ventricular assist devices (VADs). Unfortunately, by coming into contact with the patient’s blood, VADs can increase the possibility of blood clots and strokes. The robotic heart pump doesn’t directly contact blood and lessens this risk. The device is basically a thin silicone sleeve which wraps around the heart, mimicking the outer muscles of a mammal’s heart. If the pateint’s condition improves, the pump does less work, and if it gets worse, the pump works harder. Although the robot is yet to be tested on humans, Harvard researchers are collaborating with Boston Children’s Hospital to find ‘commercial applications’ for the potentially life saving technology.

The development of soft robots represents a new way of thinking about machines and the jobs they can do. These ideas are becoming a reality thanks to 3D printing, advanced engineering and materials science. Soft robots have an extensive list of possible applications, including manufacturing, production, healthcare, military, maintenance and, if Disney’s patent for a soft-bodied robot is accepted, also entertainment. Perhaps the most exciting thing about this new breed of bots is their ability to self sustain and move independently of external hardware. By becoming more like living organisms, soft robots aren’t just going to disrupt industry, they will disrupt society itself.