There’s plenty of ‘revolutionary’ tech out there these days, from cellular to biological, but what if you, in your very own home, could create a robot capable of changing its form at a moment’s notice? Welcome to the world of soft robotics.
To someone with no prior knowledge of soft robotics, the term must sound strange and confusing when the accepted image of a robot is a mesh of hard steel, wires and pneumatic drive systems that shuffles along a guided path.
However, in the past few years, there have been substantial developments in the new field that looks beyond what we would define as a robot, and rather takes the hardware that powers robots and puts it within the confines of a flexible, but sturdy, case.
After all, creatures in nature are designed to be quite flexible in their surroundings and to navigate obstacles or other environmental challenges by bending themselves around or moving in ways that traditional robotics simply can’t.
This is why hundreds of researchers are now pouring hours of research into soft robotics, with the aim of creating intelligent and highly adaptable robots for potential use in everything from being a priceless aid for human medical conditions, to being a robot that could enter a toppled building to find survivors.
The latter of these two examples was seen recently in these parts with a robotics team inspired by cockroaches to create a robot called CRAM (Compressible Robot and Articulated Mechanisms) capable of re-creating the animal’s agility for rescue operations.
Another European project, called Stiff-Flop, aims to create a flexible robotic arm capable of entering the human body comfortably during surgery.
Or how about Harvard’s efforts in creating a soft robotic hand that could allow stroke victims to regain control of their grip once again?
Blessed are the makers
All of these developments, it seems, come following what is being described in some circles as the dawn of a new age and an “explosion of interest”, at least according to one Irish researcher heavily invested in the field, Dr Donal Holland, who spoke with us at Siliconrepublic.com.
And what’s leading this surge in interest? Well, the increasing democratisation of the hardware necessary to build soft robotics.
As a visiting lecturer in engineering sciences at Harvard University in the US, and a lecturer in biomechanics at the UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, Holland has devoted much of his work towards the world of soft robotics, which, he says, is led by the maker revolution.
“This increase of interest in soft robotics has largely happened among research students and makers,” he says. “I believe this is largely due to increasing levels of access to rapid prototyping equipment e.g. laser cutters, 3D printers and low-cost computer numerical control (CNC) mills.”Holland is certainly one to know about available low-cost solutions to soft robotics given his work on something called
Holland is certainly one to know about available low-cost solutions to soft robotics given his work on something called the Soft Robotics Toolkit.
The Soft Robotics Toolkit
Developed jointly between US and Irish researchers, the toolkit is pretty much exactly what you think it would be, that being, a toolkit to help robotics researchers create all sorts of devices, including CAD files for 3D-printing parts like silicone moulds, which can be edited to a researcher’s specifications.
“Before the spread of the low-cost prototyping equipment,” Holland says, “making custom moulds in a repeatable way – not by hand – was prohibitively expensive. Now it is much easier and cheaper.”
And boy is it cheaper as, effectively, all you need to do is buy silicone, available from many art supply shops at a cost of a few euro, and use it to make one soft robotic component like, say, the incredible untethered soft robot developed at Harvard that pushed durability of soft robotics to new limits.
“If you were to bash most traditional rigid robots with a bat, or run them over with a car, they would be out of action,” says Holland. “However, if a component breaks [in a soft robot], reusing the same mould with a few more cents worth of silicone to replace the part is pretty easy.”
It’s not quite that simple, however, as while the shell is soft, the components within are certainly not, like the valves and microcontrollers, which still need to be tethered to hard components like electric pumps and batteries.
Soft robotics in your home
The next step for Holland and everyone involved in the soft robotics team is to take this work from the lab and into the home, due to the overwhelming demand they have had since offering the toolkit.
“We are currently developing mould designs that rely on household materials or easily accessible parts,” he reveals. “During the coming year, we will be testing these new instructions with secondary school students in the US, Peru, and – I hope – Ireland. After we have tested and improved the instructions, we will share detailed documentation on the website so that students, teachers and parents can use them to make their own soft devices at home or in the classroom.”
As it turns out, the group is quite eager to hear from teachers and schools, in particular, that might want to get their students working on soft robotics using the instructional material in the toolkit.
It is then hoped that those looking to participate can get involved with three soft robotics competitions this year that are open to students at school and college levels, including any Irish students.
So what does the future hold? Well, Holland has said that his own interest in the field largely stems from his scientific aim of discovering more about the human body, but also for reasons that appear to be quite common in soft robotics: to make systems beneficial to humankind.
While this journalist is quick to list off to him a whole range of science fiction-like possibilities, including a melding of robotics and humans, Holland is a little more down-to-Earth, but definitely optimistic.
“I do think there’s fantastic scope for current soft robotics to make contributions to the continued improvement of prostheses and orthoses,” he says.