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Soft Robotics

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Soft Robotics

Imagine robots that are pliable and soft to the touch, more like certain biological forms, and can operate in unpredictable environments.

Key Insight

Imagine robots that are pliable and soft to the touch, more like certain biological forms, and can operate in unpredictable environments.

Examples

There are now a variety of soft robots available. Some look like fat, squishy human fingers while others resemble gelatinous cephalopods. Bioengineering researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles developed a tissue-based soft robot that mimics the biomechanics of a stingray.

Scientists at the BioRobotics Institute at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy, created a robot octopus, capable of emulating the animal’s agile motions. To replicate the biology of an octopus, they built computer models using exact measurements and then experimented with a number of soft actuators to develop artificial muscles.

Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have been working on a robotic snake that could navigate through rubble or confined spaces. MIT engineers created soft and compact 3-D printed structures that can be controlled using magnets. The hope is that they can someday help control biomedical devices, take images within the body, clear arterial blockages, deliver targeted drugs to specific body parts, or even extract tissue samples.

What’s Next

Soft robots face a big problem when it comes to heat control, because they’re made of flexible synthetic materials rather than metals, which are better at dissipating heat. Researchers at Cornell’s School of Engineering developed a robot capable of “sweating.” They built a soft robotic muscle that can autonomously regulate its internal temperature, just like living organisms do.

The Impact

Someday soon, soft robotics will let us enter and explore environments previously unreachable by conventional methods: deep ocean waters, the terrain of Mars, and perhaps even the gushing rivers of blood inside our own bodies.

Watchlist

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Harvard Biodesign Lab, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, MIT Media Lab, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s Soft Contact Modeling Group, MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Soft Robotics, University of California-Los Angeles School of Engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Institute.