Watch What These Soft Robots Can Do

Scientists are making bendy robots that can squeeze into small spaces and grip objects of any shape

smithsonian.com

Imagine a squishy robot.

Not easy, is it? Robots have always been hard, mechanical, metallic things, tools built largely to mimic the hardest part of the human body—our skeletons. And, they’re supposed to be all about precision, not flexibility.

Squishy? Hardly.

Except, the two biggest stories in the robotics world last week were about machines that are a very long way from C-3PO. The first announced that Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale has developed a robot with a very sensitive grip—so gentle that it’s able to pick up an egg, and so flexible it can grab a single sheet of paper, all while also being able to lift objects 80 times its weight.

The secret is that each of this machine’s two fingers is made of silicone, in which are embedded two different types of electrodes—one that bends the fingers to fit around an object, no matter its shape, and the other that enables the fingers to actually grasp the object using electroadhesion, the same principle as when you get a balloon to stick to the wall by first rubbing it through your hair.

The second newsmaker was a clever little device you might call Roboroach. It’s a tiny robot modeled by University of California, Berkeley scientists after a cockroach, specifically its amazing ability to flatten its body so that it’s only a quarter of its normal height.

That faculty inspired the researchers to design a robot that’s able to compress itself the same way. It’s still a work in progress, but the Berkeley team hopes this kind of flattening robot with sensors will one day be able to wriggle inside the rubble of collapsed buildings. 

The way of the future

Those innovations are part of the new trend in robot design, known simply as soft robotics. The point is to move away from machines based on stiff human-like arms and legs, and instead think “boneless.”

In fact, the models for most soft robots are invertebrates—insects, octopuses or squid. Thanks to advances in silicone and other bendable materials, one of these robots could, for instance, use a tentacle that unfurls and twists and is able to grasp something from different angles. Soft robots can stretch, change their shape or size—in short, adapt to their environment.

This flips robotics on its head. For decades, robots have basically been designed to be inflexible, meticulously programmed to perform the same task the same way time after time. That consistency was their beauty. That’s what made them invaluable on assembly lines or anywhere else relentless precision mattered.

But once you put those robots outside the environment for which they were designed, they’re pretty useless. And now, in parallel with the advances in artificial intelligence, robots are expected to be able to tackle more complex tasks, to deal with the unpredictable and to interact a lot more with humans. In Japan, in fact, they are now seen as central to how the country will deal with its rapidly aging population—they will be caregivers to the elderly.

A first big test

Still, for all their promise, soft robots are largely unproven in the real world. But in late April, 10 teams will put them to the test at the Robosoft Grand Challenge in Italy, the first international competition for these next-gen machines.

One challenge will be designed to simulate a disaster site, one that humans could not navigate. The robots will need to move through a sandbox, crawl through a small hole, climb up stairs and balance in a precarious location without causing it to collapse.

Another is all about gripping. The machines will compete in picking up objects and moving them to a specific location. They will also need to be able to open a door with a handle, a very complex maneuver for a more conventional robot.

The final test will be underwater. Robots will jump into water, move through an aperture that can increase and decrease in size, and then be judged on how well they can remove algae without destroying a nearby coral reef.

Sounds challenging, but it could be just the proving ground this new wave of robots needs.

Here’s a sampling of what some of the latest soft robots can do:

Delicate business: Recently, surgeons in London used a soft robot during an operation for the first time. Made from silicone, it mimics an octopus tentacle and can bend in all directions. That enabled the robot, equipped with a camera, to squeeze through narrow openings and past delicate organs without damaging them.

Handle with care: Conventional robots are notoriously clunky when it comes to collecting delicate samples of marine life. But a team from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has invented a “squishy” alternative, two types of soft grippers that can gently pick up items underwater. One mimics the coiling action of a boa constrictor, allowing it to get into tight spaces and then grab irregularly-shaped objects.

Follow the jumping cube: Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab built a soft three-inch cube that’s able to deploy metal “tongues.” It presses the bendable tongues against surfaces and that propels it in another direction. Scientists hope to be able to fit the jumping cube with a camera and one day use it for disaster relief. 

Watch it jump.

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