The Softer Side Of Robots

The field of soft robotics is still in its infancy and there’s still a lot of new ground to cover.


Despite the advancements in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, Robots have not learned how to show emotion… just yet. However, when we think of robots, more often than not images of clunky humanoid contraptions, metal with hinged joints and bulky movement spring to mind (excuse the pun). Whilst there are lots of applications for hard robotic machines such as factory lines, farming and military purposes, robots are evolving into more pliable and adaptable artificial organisms.

As the use of robotics increases, as does the need for more malleable machines that can assist in more intricate tasks. Building on this need, we’ve found ourselves entering into a new and exciting realm of engineering, the next generation of robots – soft robotics.

The field of soft robotics is still in its infancy and there’s still a lot of new ground to cover. The soft robots are often inspired by biological organisms with increased flexibility by replicating natural tissue.

Instead of hard plastics and metals, soft robots are compiled of more flexible materials such as silicone, fabric, rubber, springs, gels and fluids which allow for greater dexterity when carrying out more elaborate tasks. However, there is a significant obstacle to overcome with powering these robots, as control systems like batteries or circuit boards are typically hard and their use in soft robotics lead to them having to be attached to an outer system or fitted with hard sections.

One of the ways around this has recently been tested by Harvard’s soft robot, Octobot which is powered by pressurized gas; a reaction turns liquid hydrogen peroxide into gas that feeds into the tentacles and helps trigger movement.

The benefits of soft robots include the application of these robots to carry out elaborate jobs but also their ability to adapt more suitably to a range of environments including that of interacting with humans. As our relationship with assistive technologies grows, we need to create more physically suitable robots to coexist with basic human physicality in a safe way.

Soft robotics are set to revolutionize how robotics are used in an array of industries. In healthcare, these robots will provide even greater assistance in remote physical examinations on patients. There are also benefits to their application in surgery by entering into biological systems safely and efficiently – think Dan Quaid and Innerspace!

Most surgical procedures are carried out with an array of instruments and the soft robot could all but eliminate the need for these in the future and streamline the surgical process. Work has also been done in programming nano-robots small enough to be encapsulated by a gel-like fluid and maneuver inside the human system itself to carry in medicines and target specific areas. The human body is a highly unstructured environment for a robot to navigate, however, the flexibility and ability to compress and deform allow these mechanisms to do so successfully.

People with disabilities will also see great benefits, through wearable prosthetics with enhanced functionality replicating bio-materials and aesthetics, as well as people undergoing rehabilitative support with physiotherapy who will be able to interact with more suitable mechanisms.

Rescue services are another application for soft robotics. These flexible organisms can help in disaster situations, such as earthquakes and tsunamis when major damage has been done to habitats. With an ability to deform and fit between debris, soft robots are able to navigate rubble to search for survivors. Harvard researchers have used soft robots for aiding their field exploration by designing soft grippers to excavate delicate biological specimens during deep sea exploration.

We’re currently at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to soft robotics and we’re sure to see advancements in this exciting interdisciplinary field over the coming years.

Can you think of any applications these fantastic robots could be used for?

Matt Reaney is the Founder of Big Cloud. Specialists in Big Data recruitment - connecting innovative organisations with the best talent in Data Analytics and Data Science.

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