Today's trends for tomorrow's business
The Softer Side of Robotics
May 17, 2019
Flexible, squishy and oh, so amazing!
Most robots are made of hard materials and are designed to be strong, fast and precise with their movements. But the inflexibility inherent in their designs limits the ways we can safely use and interact with them.
That’s why engineers and researchers have started exploring the possibilities of soft, flexible robots made of materials that are safer for humans to be around and can navigate unpredictable environments that other robots can’t.
These agile machines are often designed to mimic the biomechanics of animals and other things we find in nature, which is leading to some exciting new applications. Expect to be (literally) bumping into some of these cool new machines in the not-too-distant future.
Whether they’re swimming into the depths of the ocean or exploring the terrain of new planets, soft robots can travel to places we’ve never been before.
- The Mars Rovers are well known, but what about the possibility of exploring gas giants? NASA is in the early stages of designing a soft-robotic rover that looks like a squid and can function without electricity or light sources, instead using its tentacles to harvest power from locally-changing magnetic fields. If it works, we may be able to start exploring gas giant moons such as Europa.
- Looking for a safe way to explore elusive marine life up close, MIT researchers developed SoFi, a soft robotic fish that can swim to places divers and cameras can’t. It really looks like a fish, too, using an undulating tail to control its own buoyancy, and it can swim at depths of 50 feet for nearly an hour. Last year it captured some rare footage of sharks in the Arctic Ocean with - what else? - a fisheye lens.
Soft robots moving around inside your body? The idea might give you the creepy-crawlies, but it could also save your life.
- Researchers in Hong Kong have developed a “millirobot” that can deliver drugs to targeted parts of your body. With a multi-leg design that looks a lot like a caterpillar, the millirobot can carry loads 100 times heavier than itself and move efficiently through parts of the body that are full of mucus, blood or other liquids. Future plans include developing millirobots made of biodegradable materials that don’t need to be removed - they’ll simply decompose after they deliver your medicine.
- Some people wear their heart on their sleeve - and others wear a robotic sleeve on their heart. Harvard biomedical engineers teamed up with Boston Children’s hospital to create a soft robot sleeve that fits around a cardiac patient’s heart and helps it pump, augmenting their own cardiovascular functions. It’s still in animal trials, but researchers hope the sleeve will someday help patients strengthen their heart muscles, particularly those waiting for heart transplants.
Search and rescue
Because soft robots can handle things delicately and squeeze into tight spaces humans can’t enter, they may be able to help disaster victims.
- Seeing a big cockroach skittering your way sounds like a nightmare - but what if it was there to save you? A cockroach’s unique ability to navigate small spaces and general indestructibility is what inspired UC Berkeley researchers to design CRAM (short for “compressible robot with articulated mechanisms"). CRAM has a soft shell, a jointed exoskeleton, and it can withstand intense pressure - the perfect tool for exploring the debris of collapsed buildings and finding survivors.
With the world’s elderly population expected to double by 2050 - and not enough caregivers to help them - building robot caregivers is quickly becoming a medical priority.
- Caregiving robots that ask a patient questions a nurse would ask and monitor patients for falls are already around. But what about ones that can touch and physically assist patients? Researchers at Purdue are using 3D printers to build what they call an architected soft machine (ASM). ASMs rely on miniaturized motors instead of muscles and can grip and crawl with ease; while they’re not as advanced as friendly caregiver Baymax from Big Hero 6, they show potential for the kinds of tactile interactions the elderly need.
Food handling and manufacturing
Could soft robots be part of the next industrial revolution? Factory workers can’t work alongside robots for fear of injury - but they may be able to soon.
- Some food products, such as breads and pizza dough, are too delicate for standard robots to handle. But robots with a softer touch can touch and transport baked goods and other fragile foods without crushing them.
- This newly-designed origami-inspired soft gripper can lift 120 times their own weight, handle fragile items like wine glasses, and can safely do its job next to human coworkers.
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