When you think about robots, you probably think of mechanical, hard-edged things that move about haltingly. That may be about change, as soft robotics scientists and engineers develop flexible, lifelike robots that mimic nature and perform important tasks in new ways.
Soft robotics differ from their harder, more traditional counterparts in some important ways:
- Soft robots have little or no hard internal structures. Instead they use a combination of muscularity and deformation (pdf) to grasp things and move about
- Rather than using motors, cables or gears, soft robots are often animated by pressurized air or liquids
- In many cases soft robotics designs that mimic natural, evolved biological forms. This, combined with their soft exteriors, can make soft robots more suitable for interaction with living things, or even for use as human exoskeletons.
Soft Robotics Examples
As the soft robotics field emerges, it is being led by a handful of top universities – many of which receive funding from DARPA, the US Military research organization. The university research is focused on developing new materials and forms for soft robots, and on designing the controllers and actuators that animate them. Here’s what a few of them are are up to:
Cornell researchers developed – and are now commercializing- a soft robotics gripper that forms snugly around the contours of irregularly-shape objects. The gripper was conceived in a DARPA-funded programmable matter project, and represents one of the first soft robotics products to enter the marketplace.
Image: Empire Robotics
Harvard’s Soft Exosuit
Using a $3 million DARPA grant, Harvard’s Wyss Institute researchers are developing a wearable exoskeleton for military use. Designed to be worn under a soldier’s regular gear, this soft robot could help soldiers walk further, tire less easily and carry heavy loads more safely. Civilian versions for medical use may also be in the works.
Image: Harvard’s Wyss Institute
Researchers at Harvard and Cornell have working together to develop a biologically-inspired crawling soft robot that can move about autonomously and withstand severe environments as it navigates irregular terrain.
At MIT, researchers have been inspired by the natural forms of fish, snakes and worms in their quest to build soft robots. Like Harvard and Cornell, MIT soft robotics efforts receive some funding from DARPA. A soft robotics fish developed at MIT is powered by compressed air and closely replicates many fish movements.
Image: M. Scott Brauer
At Italy’s Biorobotics Institute, researchers are developing the PoseiRONE, an octopus-inspired underwater soft robot that can swim and crawl and perform complex tasks. Its designers expect it to have many underwater applications.
Image: The Biorobotics Institute
The Open Future Of Soft Robotics
The field of soft robotics can be expected to mature rapidly as developers leverage new, open-source development tools such as open source robotics operating systems and open source 3D printable toolkits like the soft robotics toolkit from Harvard.
Originally published on November 24, 2014.