Soft, Flexible Robots Offer Better Human Interaction
A recent trend toward building pliable, inflatable bots aims to outfit them for more delicate jobs
Advances in robotics over the past few decades have revealed many ways in which home-service robots of the future will not, alas, resemble The Jetsons’ faithful Rosie. In the past several years, developers have worked to set aside another of her features, and very much in our best interest: tomorrow’s robots, it seems, won’t be steely clunkers, but rather soft, flexible, and able to gently tuck you in at night.
The field of soft robotics, the creations of which vary from skeletons covered in silicone-filled “muscles” to invertebrate, air-pressurized hexapeds, is gaining interest and support from the science and investment communities alike. As Quartz explains, two main advantages of soft robots over hard ones are their ability to bump into things without causing damage to themselves or the other party/object and their greatly increased flexibility and mobility over their harder ancestors. A wide array of investors have caught onto (and begun funding) this trend, which, as Gartner market research analyst Gerald Van Hoy told Businessweek, “has the potential to influence all kinds of robotic and machine design,” and is “a key development in the evolution of robotics.”
With more researchers and developers getting involved, the field has even spawned its own peer-reviewed journal, Soft Robotics, first published in March. As Quartz reported, one project discussed in Soft Robotics’ first issue is a joint-free robotic fish, which is controlled by the flow of carbon dioxide pumped through channels and can bend and move in ways unattainable by hard robots.
One firm at the forefront of soft robotics is Pneubotics, whose six full-time developers are receiving support for their various projects from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon arm that seeks and funds futuristic technology, and the National Science Foundation. After a recent visit to Pneubotics’ San Francisco shop, Businessweek noted several differences between traditional robotics labs and the methods being used to give shape to soft bots.
“Right now our process looks more like tailoring than engineering,” said Pneubotics co-founder Saul Griffith, indicating “sewboticist” Della Shea’s activity with thick vinyl fabric at a sewing machine. Among other things, his team hopes to develop robots that can more more accurately perform delicate tasks traditionally done by humans — such as helping an elderly person into bed or handling brittle beakers with care — but also inhabit roles beyond human ability but which only dexterity and flexibility allow. “Imagine,” wrote Businessweek on the the team’s projected applications, “an octopus-like robot that can squirm through rubble at a disaster site but has the strength to pull bricks off an injured person.” Griffith also noted that he is excited about soft robotics’ potential applications as better functioning, more comfortable prostheses and exo-skeletal supports. In the long run, he hopes, soft robots could become safe and able multipurpose home robots. “Children could ride them,” Griffith suggested happily.
Overseen by CEO and co-founder Kevin Albert, Pneubotics receives support and influence from Otherlab, a research and development company also headed by Griffith and whose areas of interest include design tools, products in support of green energy, robotics, and prostheses. The Otherlab team turned heads in 2011 with its creation of the Ant-Roach, which weighs less than 70 pounds and is speculated to support up to 1,000 pounds. As The Verge reported, the robot’s “muscles” are fabric actuators and create motion by contracting into specific shapes, as directed by a wireless laptop, and served to demonstrate the carrying capacity and strength of inflatable robotics.
Pneubotics has already begun selling its first product, an industrial robot arm comprised solely of hydraulic veins and soft pressure vessels in a vinyl shell, to laboratories. Albert forecasts that the product and its successors will find market success doing manufacturing work where traditional robots have been too heavy or expensive. Given the fact that Allied Market Research estimates that there’s a $10 billion market for industrial robots that can handle materials better than humans, he may soon be proven right.
Images: Pneubotics, Otherlab, CNN