‘Soft’ Robots From MIT and Harvard Open Up Possibilities for New Class of Bots

The science of soft robotics is making big leaps as teams from MIT and Harvard have recently shown off new prototypes, hoping to challenge the way people imagine the future of robotics.

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, led by director Daniela Rus, already has a portfolio of untraditional robots, inspired by the movements of living creatures. Their robots fly like falcons, perch like pigeons, and swim like swordfish. This week, at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, a new robot was unveiled which moves like a snake through a pipe-like environment without the need for a human operator.

“I want to challenge the notion that robots have to look or act a certain way”, says Andrew Marchese, a doctoral candidate at MIT’s CSAIL who worked on the project.

Made completely of silicone rubber created using 3D printed molds, the arm is the latest entry in the burgeoning field of soft robots, whose movements are not constrained by the hard joints seen in traditional counterparts.

Soft robots has the potential to create safer, more resilient, and more efficient devices in a way that traditional rigid-bodied robotics cannot. Most robots cannot move in confined spaces and must be programmed precisely to avoid collisions, while this silicone arm, without rigid joints, can be much more nimble in it’s movement.

Other so-called soft robots still have inflexible elements such as high-pressure actuators and aluminum pieces which hold everything together. CSAIL’s robotic arm is so soft that a typical motor shaft cannot be attached. Instead, the team creatively solved that problem by using expandable channels on both sides which fill with pressurized air and strain the silicone, causing it to change shape and move. The team worked to develop complex algorithms to determine the curvature needed to make the diversity of motions required for the robot to navigate their pipe-like environment.

If CSIL’s snake-like robotic arm isn’t convincing enough, take at look at this nearly indestructible soft robot, developed at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

Inspired by the non-rigid structure of animals like starfish and squid, and made from a composite of stiff rubber, silicone elastomer and polyamide fabric, this untethered soft robot can get up and walk freely through snow and fire and can even survive unscathed after being run over by a car. It is resistant to water, corrosion, UV damage, fire and a wide range of temperatures and environments.

Today, the combination of increased flexibility in design and manufacturing available through 3D printing, the growing variety of robust materials, and the recent surge of biomimicry, is yielding robotic machines which do not look or move anything like the mechanical looking humanoid bots envisioned in the past.

While these prototypes are in the experimental phase, future versions of both these robots could perform search and rescue tasks such as going into a collapsed building, where they could maneuver through tight spaces and withstand harmful conditions such as chemical contaminations or flames, which would be toxic to humans.

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