Posted in | Consumer Robotics

EPFL Professor to Present Futuristic Vision of Reconfigurable Robots at TED2019 Conference

It is time for people to rethink their notion of robots. Gone are the bulky machines of the past and an entirely new range of soft robots is coming to the fore, thanks to studies being performed at the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab of Jamie Paik, who founded the Lab at EPFL’s School of Engineering in January 2012.

Jamie Paik, the head of EPFL’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab, will present her reconfigurable robots at the TED2019 conference in Vancouver on 18 April. Her miniature, versatile devices stand to revolutionize the way robots are used. (Image credit: EPFL)

A spirited engineer with an unfathomable amount of energy, Paik is creating innovative folding robots that can help people in their day-to-day tasks, and also with complex physical maneuvers if positioned on their legs and arms. The soft, versatile, and flexible machines being developed by Paik are light years away from the devices people normally see in science-fiction movies and on production lines.

The rigid, powerful robots used in manufacturing are perfect for the preprogrammed environments of production plants—such as to make smartphones or computers. But if we want devices that can assist us in our everyday lives, they need to be flexible, responsive to change and able to interact with us safely.

Jamie Paik, Professor and Head, Reconfigurable Robotics Lab, EPFL

For example, robots like these can possibly be utilized at home for performing household tasks, or they could even be incorporated into the clothing.

Technology that moves with people

The insightful work and futuristic vision of Paik have attracted the interests of the organizers of the TED conference.

One of the organizers attended a talk I gave and then invited me to speak at TED2019, whose topic is ‘Bigger than us.’ I didn’t think twice before accepting—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

Jamie Paik, Professor and Head, Reconfigurable Robotics Lab, EPFL

The 2019 TED conference will take a serious look at the technologies that are redefining the world at large. Nobel Prize winners and renowned figures like Michelle Obama and Steve Jobs were former TED speakers.

During her presentation, Paik will give a summary of her futuristic vision of a world in which robots will be as ordinary as smartphones.

The difference is that the new technology won’t be passive. It will move with us, but we won’t even notice it’s there. The robots will seem invisible,” she stated.

Large-scale robot production

So, how exactly will these robots look like? Paik’s research team is creating two types of robots. The first set was inspired by origami, called folding robots, or robogamis. Integrated with a number of actuators and joints, these robots are originally flat, similar to a credit card, but can be folded into a wide range of 3D shapes. Certain robogamis, known as tribots, are capable of communicating with one another and move by climbing or jumping. Moreover, large-scale production is possible since robogamis can be developed in 2D.

These robots have so many joints that even though their individual components may be rigid, they can bend in myriad ways and are completely flexible, like a mesh of yarn,” Paik stated.

In addition, Paik’s research team is creating “rubber” robots of a wide range of sizes and shapes that move with the help of pneumatic actuators. These robots are capable of mimicking human muscles and can be linked together to climb walls or move objects.

If we integrate the actuators into clothing, they can receive tactile signals and transmit those signals to a motion device. The system could thus help patients during physical therapy, for example,” stated Paik.

In the days to come, Paik’s robots would be able to manage mundane and repetitive tasks associated with gardening or housework; however, their possibilities do not end there. Currently, Paik is working with the Swiss Space and the European Space Agency to explore the uses for her soft robots in space.

Astronauts often end up wasting time on routine tasks. And since every gram counts when you’re sending a vessel up in space, these soft robots could be an interesting alternative.

Jamie Paik, Professor and Head, Reconfigurable Robotics Lab, EPFL

A talk for her grandmother

During her talk at TED conference in Vancouver, Paik will demonstrate a tiny haptic joystick that offers realistic tactile feedback—a potential technological advancement for applications in virtual reality. Also inspired by origami, the innovative joystick is composed of carbon fiber and when not in use, it can be folded up and be made just as flat as a cardboard piece. A spin-off of Paik’s EPFL laboratory, Foldaway-Haptics, is currently marketing the joystick.

Conversely, it is no child’s game to prepare for the TED talk. “I’m practicing with a coach who is helping me choose each word carefully. It’s a lot of stress, but it’s also highly stimulating,” she stated. And for the Canadian-born engineer, speaking in Vancouver holds a special meaning.

My grandmother, who is 94, lives in Vancouver and will come hear me speak. It’ll be the first time she will see me working. She’s always been my biggest supporter. She used to say to me: there is nothing boys can do that girls cannot do. And you can do better than anybody. I hope she was right as always.

Jamie Paik, Professor and Head, Reconfigurable Robotics Lab, EPFL

Video credit: EPFL

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