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What Is Soft Robotics?

Ryan is a student at Drexel University studying Mechanical Engineering with concentrations in Aerospace and Energy, and Systems Engineering.

Soft robots are nothing like the assembly-line machines used in automotive manufacturing.

Soft robots are nothing like the assembly-line machines used in automotive manufacturing.

The Evolution of Robotics

What we define as robotics is changing. In the past, robots were mainly used for the repetitive, difficult movement of parts in the automotive industry and similar fields. These robots were big, heavy, metal machines that were made to perform tasks that were too difficult or dangerous for humans to do themselves.

Nowadays, the term "robot" is evolving. While many still have those industrial jobs, robotics also includes applications for transportation, security, tracking, and even companionship. Robots have begun to look drastically different as well, and many are no longer the large, clunky metal machines that took over industries years ago.

What Is Soft Robotics?

Soft robotics, to put it simply, involves the creation of robots that are soft. They are made out of cushioned, flexible materials that allow them to handle delicate objects without destroying them, and they can often perform human-like motions that their metal counterparts would have never been able to. Additionally, soft robots can adapt to external forces from their environment. The ability to bend and adjust their shape can prove vital for success in unpredictable and changing situations.

How Do Soft Robots Move and Complete Tasks?

These compliant materials have to rely on non-systems for movement. This has led to some pretty impressive technological feats throughout the past decade or two as new ways to move soft robots have been developed. One of the more common methods is pneumatics, or changing the pressure within the material to either expand or contract the device. This method proves effective in picking up delicate objects.

Another frequent method is the use of the thermal properties of a material. Shape-memory polymers are reconfigurable materials that, when above a certain temperature, can be shaped a specific way and then cooled down. When introduced to heat again, they revert back to their original shape.

Lastly, a less frequent method of control is through electric fields. In certain situations, with certain materials, electrostatic forces can be used to change the shape of a robot. This is used less often not only because of the specific conditions in which it can be applied but also due to the requirement for a constantly high voltage. Robots controlled by electric fields are also prone to breakdowns.

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This soft robot is able to grab objects much like a human hand.

This soft robot is able to grab objects much like a human hand.

Applications of Soft Robotics

As stated previously, there are many uses for soft robots, and their applications in the field are vital to many companies' success. One of the most common uses for these soft systems is gripping objects. The compliant material can be suppressed when pressing against something, and light pressure from a pneumatics system on the inside of the claw is enough to provide support for anything delicate, no matter how small the size is. These machines can pick up eggs, fruit, and even things as flat as cookies without damaging them. A minor drawback for this system, however, is that an additional mechanical system is usually required to operate the pneumatics effectively and correctly.

Soft robotics also aims to fix certain problems in the biomedical industry. Many people around the world suffer from conditions that restrict motor functions in one of or both of their hands, and a soft robotics application could provide them with assistance opening and closing said hand. It can also provide support while holding day-to-day items. The material aspect of the field allows for the revolutionizing of prosthetics and shows great promise for technology on the millimeter or micrometer scale.

Our First Soft Robotics Claw

Our First Soft Robotics Claw

My Experience With Soft Robotics

I am fortunate enough to have been on a team that explored some of the basic uses of soft robotics, going as far as constructing our own claw to try to pick up random household objects that fit in its diameter. Our claw was made of a rubber alloy and consisted of two pieces in a three-pronged design. The top part was molded with just rubber, but the bottom was molded with a strip of paper in it. This strip of paper prevented that piece from expanding when our pneumatics system increased the pressure inside of the claw. While it remained the same size, the top piece without the paper would swell when the pump was active.

When restrained with a thin fiber filament, the claw would curl toward the non-swelling piece, creating the movement of a claw. Our pneumatics system consisted of a small hand pump that had to be squeezed several times to fully close. Overall, it was not the prettiest product, but it served the purpose of starting our research into applications of soft robotics.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Ryan Clancy

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