New Robot Trends: Soft, Flexible, Squishy

R2D2-like and Baxter-Style Robots may be suitable for welding rivets or working on an airplane fuselage, but such robots are far from ideal for working with soft human tissue and delicate items.

by Mish

Delicate robotic work requires something with flexible arms like that of an octopus. That future is on the horizon.

Scientists and engineers in the field have long worked on hard-bodied robots, often inspired by humans and other animals with hard skeletons. These machines have the virtue of moving in mathematically predictable ways, with rigid limbs that can bend and straighten only around fixed joints. But they also require meticulous programming and extensive feedback to avoid smacking into things; even then, their motions often become erratic or even dangerous when dealing with humans, new objects, bumpy terrain or other unpredictable situations.

Robots inspired by flexible creatures such as octopuses, caterpillars or fish offer a solution. Instead of requiring intensive (and often imperfect) computations, soft robots built of mostly pliable or elastic materials can just mould themselves to their surroundings. Although some of these machines use wires or springs to mimic muscles and tendons, as a group, soft robots have ditched the skeletons that defined previous robot generations. With nothing resembling bones or joints, these machines can stretch, twist, scrunch and squish in completely new ways. They can transform in shape or size, wrap around objects and even touch people more safely than ever before.

Although most soft robots remain in the lab, some of Whitesides’ creations are venturing out to feed industrial demand for adept robotic hands. Conventional grippers require detailed information about factors such as an object’s location, shape, weight and slipperiness to move each of its joints correctly. One system may be specialized for handling shampoo bottles, whereas another picks up only children’s toys, and yet another is needed for grabbing T-shirts. But as manufacturers update their product lines, and as e-commerce warehouses handle a growing variety of objects, these companies need to swap in customized grippers and updated control algorithms for each different use — often at great cost and delay.

By contrast, grippers that are made mainly of soft, stretchy materials can envelop and conform to objects of different shapes and sizes. Soft Robotics, a start-up company in Cambridge, Massachussetts, that spun out of Whitesides’ research in 2013, has raised some US$4.5 million to develop a line of rubbery robotic claws. “We use no force sensors, no feedback systems and we don’t do a lot of planning,” says the company’s chief executive, Carl Vause. “We just go and grab an object”, squeezing until the grip is secure.

There’s much more in the article so give it a look. Meanwhile, I offer this musical tribute.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock