Soft robotics needs the same breakthrough rigid robots had in the 1980s

20 Jun 2017

Conor Walsh, associate professor of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard University. Image: Rolex Awards

The field of soft robotics offers great potential for solving a myriad of different issues, but the technology behind it has yet to become mainstream, according to Harvard researcher Conor Walsh.

If you were to ask someone what they imagine when they hear the word ‘robot’, the most likely response is one of a cold, metal machine that is either building a car in a factory, or trying to ‘terminate’ the future saviour of mankind.

But, away from the fearmongering and industry reports of machines taking over low-paid jobs, there is another field of robotics that is altogether different, and a lot more experimental: soft robotics.

At Inspirefest last year, Dr Dónal Holland showed just a few examples of how 3D printing and affordable electronics are spawning a range of new robotic creations that ditch the rigid, metal frame in favour of malleable machines with a multitude of different uses.

Holland’s compatriot and fellow Soft Robotics Toolkit developer, Dr Conor Walsh, is one such person who is using soft robotics to help bring change to people’s lives, including those who have become impaired in some way – after a stroke, for example.

Power of an exosuit

Towards the end of last year, Walsh – who currently works out of Harvard University’s Biodesign Lab – was one of 10 winners of the prestigious Rolex Awards for engineering achievements, thanks to his soft robotic exosuit.

The exosuit is designed to enable physically impaired people to walk without assistance, with the aim of eventually making it available to those around the world who most need it.

Born out of collaboration with the US military’s research division DARPA, Walsh and his team began by using a mixture of 3D-printed parts and electronics to build an exosuit that can allow someone to carry a load of 45kg for up to 20km.

Unlike a traditional model you might have seen in Hollywood movies or video games, the soft robotics exosuit would be a much more subtle frame, capable of being worn underneath clothing, making it easier for those more self-conscious to wear it.

Getting stroke patients back on their feet

“In our own studies, we have shown we can make people walk 7pc more efficiently,” Walsh said in conversation with

“It’s not a huge change, but it’s still significant and now we’re going to try and get that between 10 and 20pc over the next year or so.”

Now undergoing clinical trials with the R&D team, a more sophisticated medical version of the exosuit is expected to be ready sometime next year.

“That’s our main effort now: focusing on patients post-stroke,” he added.

“When they have a stroke, they have one leg that’s impaired and one that is OK. We’re developing the device for use in rehabilitation clinics and to help train the person how to walk in a physiologically normal manner again.”

Reaching maturity

Reading this alone, you would think that soft robotics is already at an advanced level and on par with existing, and impressive, rigid robots that are entering our factories, and even restaurants.

Recent examples demonstrated by fellow soft robotics researchers across the globe have shown some incredible creations, such as the manta ray-like soft robot that could one day be used to monitor lakes and oceans for signs of pollution.

However, Walsh admitted that the field has yet to experience the same breakthrough moment as rigid robots had around 30 years ago.

“If you look at robotics science in the 1980s, they were theorising equations on how to plan things like motion and trajectory that was fundamental at the time, but we take for granted today,” Walsh explained.

He added that rather, at this point in time, it is largely academia working on soft robotics projects that remain almost entirely within the concept phase of development, and are not yet ready to take the next step. This includes developing the manufacturing tech to help scale it and make it low-cost, but also repeatable and robust enough for real-world applications.

“They’re things that are probably not the first problems you want to solve, but people are going to need to think about them in order for them to become everyday-type devices.”

Walsh sees a bright future for soft robotics, not only on the human body, but in it, too.

Science Translational Medicine

Image: Science Translational Medicine

Soft robotics in the human body

Earlier this year, we heard from Dr Ellen Roche, a postdoctoral researcher at NUI Galway, who published a paper detailing her new soft robotic sleeve for the heart.

Aimed at patients who have experienced heart failure, Roche’s robotic silicone sleeve wraps around the organ and uses externally controlled soft pneumatic actuators to mimic the outer muscle layers. This recreates the pumping capabilities of the heart and can be customised to the needs of the patient.

“[Roche’s robotics sleeve] was the real first demonstration of a soft robot useful inside the body for something that was an important medical application,” Walsh said.

“Ellen and others are starting to think of … other areas where that could be useful. If someone needs assistance with their bladder or heart inside the body, you could definitely imagine these devices being fully implantable in the future.”

This could potentially span into other areas, he added, mentioning the possibility of combining tissue engineering and soft robotics.

So, for example, a patient might receive a specially built soft robotic organ that degrades over time until a tissue engineered organ is ready to replace it.

“I think there’s a lot of potential but it’s hard to predict,” Walsh said.

“For implantable devices, the bar is a lot higher for making sure they work reliably and safely for a long time.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic