The Softer Side of Robotics
Flexible, squishy and oh, so amazing!
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.