For decades, most people have seen robots as upright, rigid, humanoid machines with gleaming chrome body parts, perhaps glowing red eyes and clunky movements. But many researchers and engineers are switching gears, seeking instead to build robots that move like the body of an octopus, a caterpillar, Venus fly-trap, flea or folded paper origami.
“Soft robotics” is challenging traditional robotics as a way of building devices that are better integrated with the natural environment, moving the ways that animals do.
The goal is to design robots that mimic the movements of creatures who have evolved over millions of years, while still accomplishing the tasks that people need robots for in the first place, like exploring dangerous areas, picking up and moving things or doing repetitive tasks.
“It was a big change for me,” Cecilia Laschi, professor at the Biorobotics Institute at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy, said about her conversion to the field. “I realized that if we want to use neuroscience or brain models to control robots, we also need to look at a different body. We have to look at animals and plants, they have a lot of soft parts.”
Soft-bodied robots can get smaller, squeeze into tight places, deform their shape and still maintain strength and gripping power, Laschi said.
Her robot octopus, for example, is designed to explore underwater nooks and crannies of shipwrecks, coral reefs and drilling operations. It uses an artificial muscle of a special braid of plastic fibers embedded in silicon.
Similar human-like soft robots can also exert fine motor control, and a gentle touch. That might be important when for a robot that has to handle delicate gourmet chocolates, cookies or silicon chips on an assembly line, according to Laschi.
Soft robotics includes everything from new endoscopic surgical tools that can grip and harden inside the human body like an octopus tentacle, to a flexible exo-skeleton hidden beneath a uniform to give a soldier (or athlete or injury patient) an extra power boost.
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