Robots have traditionally been made from hard materials such as metal and plastic. They have been driven by motors and other heavy electro-mechanical actuators. These robots are more like machines than biological organisms. Soft robotics on the other hand seeks to make robots that are soft, flexible and compliant, just like biological organisms. The ‘body’ of a soft robot is soft like natural tissue. A soft robot is driven not by heavy motors but by soft artificial muscles. The energy store in a soft robot much more closely resembles a biological ‘stomach’ than a conventional electrical battery. Sensors and transducers in a soft robot exploit the softness of the body, enabling new sensing modalities that mimic biological sensor systems.
A soft robot is much more like an artificial organism than a machine. An example of a soft robot is an artificial octopus which searches for victims under collapsed buildings following an earthquake. The robot can deform itself to squeeze into small gaps and ‘worm’ itself into the structure. When it finds a casualty trapped in the debris it can exert localised forces to create an air pocket. Soft robotics is a new field of robotics, which draws upon research in a wide range of complimentary fields. For example:
- Artificial Muscles – soft electro-active and chemo-active actuators
- Artificial Stomach – bio-inspired energy supplies
- Soft Sensors – tactile sensors and active skins
- Soft Brain – neuro-control of soft actuators and sensors
Applications include artificial autonomous organisms that are self-sufficient and self-repairing, soft rescue robots, robots that interact with humans, medical robotics and devices, morphing materials and structures for engineering.
Experimental Morphing Blob
The following video shows iRobot’s soft, shape-shifting robot. The ‘blob bot’ can roll around and change shape, and it will be able to squeeze through tiny cracks in a wall when the project is finished. As the video shows, by inflating different walls of the blob it is possible to make it roll and change direction.