Why soft robots are all the rage
Squids, snails and other invertebrates can do things that animals with hard skeletons can’t. For example they can squeeze through small cracks and move across rough terrain. Likewise, soft-bodied robots have some important advantages over traditional rigid ones. The video above displays a soft robot developed by George M. Whitesides and his team at Harvard University.
Developers of these types of robots are applying the concept of simplexity; while these robots are capable of more complex behaviour, on some levels their architecture is quite simple. The robot pictured above has no sensors, a mere 5 actuators , and it operates using pressurized air.
These kinds of simple designs call for inspiration from ¨simple¨ creatures. Consistent with the name of the European project, OCTOPUS, focuses on the incredible motor capabilities of the eight armed animal. Meanwhile, scientists at the Soft Robotics Lab at Tufts University have focused the majority of their studies on the Maduca sexta caterpillar. Their GoQBot mimics more than the caterpillar’s crawl- it’s able to simulate a fascinating attack response termed a ¨ballistic roll¨. You may have to see it to believe it in the video below.
There are however, some hard issues to face when making soft robots; soft materials are much more difficult to control. When a given amount of force is applied on a hard object, for example a metal rod, scientists can easily predict how the rod will move and this movement can also be easily reproduced. However, when a given force is applied to a soft object like a rubber band, its motion is much more difficult to predict because there is much more variability in the way that the force affects it.
In any case, researchers around the world are up to the challenge. Robot Companions for Citizens is a European initiative that aims to incorporate soft-material robotics in the development of sentient machines. These robots will be cognizant and aware of their physical and social world which will allow them to assist us among the chaotic variety of our everyday lives. Click HERE for more information on that initiative.