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The Future of Robotics Is Squishy

squishy robots

If you’re like us here at Dream It Do It, when you hear the word “robot,” an image of a rigid, metal humanoid similar to the Terminator pops into your head. But robots like that have proven to be a little difficult to work with alongside human beings. Perhaps the field of robotics just needs a soft touch.

Soft Robotics is a field of robotics that is dedicated to making robots that are made mostly of soft and flexible parts. It helps solve two major problems with today’s current robots:

  • They don’t have to calculate their movements as precisely as hard robots, which rely on springs and joints. This makes soft robots better for navigating uncontrolled environments like a house, disaster area, or hospital room.
  • They’re naturally “cage free,” meaning they can work shoulder-to-shoulder with humans. If a soft robot tips over or malfunctions, the danger is like being attacked by a pillow. Check out this video of a soft robot being run over by a car and still functioning!

Recently, MIT’s elite Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) introduced Bubbles, a pool-green silicone fish that sways its tail as cavities on each side of its body alternately inflate, to The Verge. This video shows Bubbles performing an “escape maneuver,” convulsing its body to change direction in just a fraction of a second, or almost as quickly as a real fish can.

The field of soft robotics has attracted a rush of attention in the last year. Harvard has multiple groups working on soft robotic hands, jumping legs, exosuits, and quadrupeds that can do the limbo. Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Soft Robotics Lab is building a snake and in San Francisco, a startup called Otherlab is building inflatable robots that can shake hands, walk, and carry riders. Instead of robots that look like C-3PO, these robots are looking more and more like Admiral Akbar!

“[Soft Robotics are] not a part of conventional robotics technologies,” says Fumiya Iida, a professor of bio-inspired robotics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology-Zurich. “They have to think completely differently, use different materials, different energy sources. Definitely this is the way we should go in the long run.”

Let’s compare a soft robot to one of the better known robots in the field, Boston Dynamic’s Atlas robot, that we talked about last year. If Atlas wants to pick up a ball, The Verge notes, it needs to sense and compute the precise distance between its digits and the ball and figure out exactly where to place its hand and how much pressure to apply.

A soft robot, like Harvard’s starfish-shaped soft gripper just has to inflate to perform its duties. As it’s pumped full of air, it conforms to the shape of an object until its “fingers” have enough pressure to lift it. It’s similar to a human being picking up a glass of water: we don’t calculate the distance between our hand and the glass, the size and shape of the glass, how much pressure is needed, etc. Our hand simply adapts to the glass.

Robots like Atlas “are doing a lot of thinking,” says Barry Trimmer, PhD, a professor at Tufts and the editor of a new journal, Soft Robotics, which launched last month. “Animals just don’t do that. We need to get away from the idea that you have to control every variable.”

Unfortunately, the effort and funding going into soft robotics is miniscule compared to what’s been invested in hard robots, as well as the usual technological challenges associated with the field of robotics. It’s still very early as a field of study and at this point it may be more hype than substance.

The field is so new, however, that no possibilities have yet been ruled out. Soft robot engineers have dreamt up everything from robot fruit pickers to surgical robots to disaster relief “meshworm” robots, even a pair of wearable human wings! The possibilities are endless.

Trimmer believes robotics is truly at the beginning of a paradigm shift. “If this is successful, there won’t really be a field of soft robotics,” he says. “Robotics in general will incorporate all of that technology and that approach. There will be predominantly soft robots.”

Photo credit: MIT

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