The world of soft robots is developing rapidly
Imagine a robot and the chances are you’ll think of a stiff machine with limited movement. But developments in soft robotics mean that jerky machines constructed with hard outer shells could soon be a thing of the past. Earlier this year, we wrote about 5 soft robots which are currently disrupting robotics. As with most advances in disruptive technology, this domain is changing fast. So let’s take a look at some of the most recent soft robots, and the ways in which they are redefining the world of machines.
1) Super strength robot
Roboticists at Harvard and MIT have recently developed a super strength robot based around a very ancient concept: origami. Whilst the skeletons of these robots are made with traditional metals or plastics, the breakthrough comes from their being folded into a specific pattern. An origami style internal structure gives the robot a phenomenal amount of strength – making it capable of lifting up to 1000 times its own body weight. As if this wasn’t impressive enough, these robot muscles are incredibly easy to make. Each robot costs around $1 and requires only ten minutes of manufacturing time. They are also waterproof and scalable from a few millimetres to a metre long. The potential applications for a small but incredibly strong robotic muscle make this development particularly exciting.
2) Edible robot
Advances in soft robotics have made it possible to create robots from incredibly diverse materials. One variant of the super strength robot discussed above was made from a water soluble polymer. This could help to reduce the environmental impact of robot interventions conducted underwater. But dissolvable robots also have another obvious application: delivering medicine to the body. A high school team from Philadelphia recently won the school section of the 2017 annual Soft Robotics competition with their edible gummy robots. Made from jelly piped into 3D printed moulds, the students managed to make the robots move by pumping them with air. Whilst this kind of model is still in its infancy, such biodegradable devices could have a large part to play in the medical treatments of the future. If they taste good too, then what’s not to like?
3) Climbing robot
Engineers have often taken their inspiration from nature, and the creators of the climbing robot Flippy are no different. The Harvard based team behind this caterpillar like robot have designed a small, flipping biped with a flexible body. Thanks to its soft, bendy design, Flippy can defy gravity to climb up and down surfaces at any angle. It autonomously transitions from one surface to another, without the need for complex commands from an external controller. Climbing robots such as this have a wide range of potential applications, from the inspection and maintenance of buildings, to search and rescue. Multiple robots could also act together in a swarm, self-assembling to create emergency or temporary structures.
4) Foam based robot
The winner of the 2017 Soft Robotics competition was a foam based soft actuator, or robot muscle. Originally developed by the Organic Robotics Lab at Cornell University, these foam robots can be easily cast or cut into desired shapes. In fact, they provide an easy way of constructing 3D soft machines. The benefit of making soft robots from foam structures is that foam already contains the open and interconnected channels that are necessary to inflate the robot, and thereby make it move. This avoids the need for complex moulding methods or the assembly of small parts which are typically used to create open channels in soft robotics. The porous structure of foam also means that the devices are adept at stretching and compressing themselves – enabling them to enter small spaces.
5) Honeycomb Pneumatic Networks (HPN) Manipulator
Another entrant to this year’s Soft Robotics competition, the HPN Manipulator is a soft robot with a honeycomb skeleton structure. Developed by the Multi-Agent System Lab in China, this robot can bend itself into stable shapes and bear relatively large loads. The honeycomb structure gives the robot minimal density and the ability to withstand high compression. Cheaper and easier to fabricate than traditional robot muscles, the flexibility and strength of this design gives it lots of applications. Currently able to perform tasks such as picking up a ball and wielding a hammer, the HPN Manipulator is highly sensitive, scalable and multi-purpose. Take a look here:
These soft robots are a few of the many recent developments to come out of the dynamic new field of soft robotics. The creation of strong, highly flexible, low cost artificial muscles with multi axial movements has seemingly unlimited applications. With potential uses in medical devices, wearable robotic exoskeletons, large deployable structures for space or deep sea exploration, and transformable architecture, soft robots are the future. In fact, they could be employed very soon in the manufacture of humanoid robots. Fleshy, flexible and super strong robot humans? It’s an exciting, if slightly chilling prospect.