Mimicking nature with soft robotics
Most organisms on Earth have a soft build. Skeletons typically make up a small proportion of our body mass, and the movement of creatures generally reflects that. So, when researchers work to create robots that move like natural organisms, things get complicated.
Soft robotics is an emerging field that’s transforming the way robots look and function. While you might associate robots with rigid metal structures (things like rods, pistons, actuators, motors, etc. aren’t exactly plush), soft robots house those features within a soft, pliable exterior.
Researchers studying soft robotics frame their broad goal as such: “The development of physical structures and behaviors that are more similar to those of living organisms can help robots to better negotiate real-world environments and accomplish real-world tasks.”
When it comes to real-world tasks, one use is allowing researchers to interact with animals in their natural habitat, since the very presence of humans is likely to alter it. IEEE Spectrum has written about a robotic fish that “moves more or less in the same way that real fish do,” and “didn’t scare nearby fish, although it’ll take more experimentation to figure out exactly what kind of impact a robotic fish like this has on the real thing.”
Research has also focused on skin shapes and textures for soft robots. In one study, recapped by IEEE Spectrum, where scientists worked to recreate the movement of a snake, analysis focused on the pattern for the skin. The version with trapezoidal shapes was the winner, “not because the trapezoidal shapes generated more friction—rather, the trapezoids allowed the skin to stretch more, which meant that the robot would elongate more when it inflated, yielding a longer ‘stride.’” This work is important for creating robots that can excel in tight spaces.
Work doesn’t end at the physical nature of animals. Plants are also inspiring advances in soft robotics, like the pinecone, which has inspired a soft actuator with bending capabilities.
The IEEE Robotics & Automation Society has a Technical Committee for Soft Robotics that is focusing on areas like the study of unconventional materials, tools and methods for fabrication, modeling and simulation, techniques to achieve sensing and more. They’re bringing together scientists and engineers to discuss these issues, as well as upcoming visionary ones, like self-repairing, growing, and self-replicating robots.