What are ‘Soft Robotics’?

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Typically, when asked to describe a robot, images of metal casings and plastic buttons enter your head. Conventionally, robots have been constructed from hard materials and driven by motors and or robust electro-mechanical actuators.

Soft robotics looks to challenge this idea. They aim to make robotics more like biological organisms than mere machinery. Soft robotics are made from – well – soft materials. These materials offer flexibility and act much like natural tissue. The robots tend to be operated by artificial muscles rather than bulky motors. This allows the robots to be more like a biological organism.

To this effect, even its battery resembles that of an organism, specifically a soft “stomach” rather than a traditional battery pack. In addition to this, a soft robot can enable new modes of sensing using sensors and transducers to mimic that of an artificial organism.

This has many applications, one of which is the artificial octopus which has been developed by researchers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. The soft robot has been developed to mimic an octopus body so it can squeeze into small gaps and locate victims trapped under collapsed structures after an earthquake. The octopus is able to work through the smallest of holes in order to find people, before exerting localized forces in order to create an air pocket, increasing the chances of survival and rescue.

This is not the only soft robotics research area available at the Bristol Research Laboratory. There has been an increased interest in the following areas in order to complete full soft robotics projects.

  • Artificial muscles using soft electro-active and chemo-active actuators
  • Artificial stomach to supply energy without a battery pack.
  • Tactile (soft) sensors and active skins
  • Soft brain using neuro-control of soft actuators and sensors

What is Soft Robotics Used For?

As mentioned previously, there are many different applications of soft robotics. This includes, but is not limited to, artificial organism, self-repairing rescue robots like the octopus, medical robots, morphing robotics and materials, and structural engineering.

Another significant area in which soft robotics is thought to be very useful is food handling and packaging. Conventionally this is a manual process that has been done by workers. However, with the reduction of labor availability and the increasing demand, there has been a significant rise of the already high percentage production cost.

Because of this, producers have begun to turn to automated machinery in order to accomplish production targets and remain economically viable in an already competitive market.

While hard robots are able to perform efficiently in one single task, soft robotics allows the user to program multiple tasks or changes to routines without having to be reintegrated or reprogrammed. This can save food producers hundreds of hours as well as a large sum of money.

This problem is echoed throughout many industries. In the 2016 Roadmap for Robotics report, the US government urges researchers to invest in a "flexible gripping mechanisms that allow for dexterous manipulation of everyday objects" and even cites this agenda as a "national imperative". The dexterity that soft robotics gives may have huge consequences for advanced manufacturing in the future.

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