Soft Robotics is the research subfield of robotics that involves construction of robots using soft, elastic and flexible materials somewhat like living organisms. In contrast to rigid robots made up of steel/aluminum nuts/bolts, soft robots offer increased flexibility, adaptability and safety. Soft robotics derives its inferences from the real-world living organisms like how they move and adapt. These characteristics allow for their potential use in the fields of medicine, understanding of biological phenomena and manufacturing.

We like to move it, move it!

A steam punk like robot toy
Soft robots can take any shape and structure | Aspioneer

It is desirable for a soft robot to posses dynamic behavior as well as plastic behavior. Dynamic behavior represents the ability to move freely (motion control) while plastic behavior represents the ability to change shape and morphology (extend a finger to touch something etc). Earlier a lot of stress was laid on use of reconfigurable robots as they consist of a number of smaller modules where each module is capable of autonomously connecting and disconnecting to each other, enabling them to change their shape. But inspired by our bodies sensory capabilities, soft robots having embedded sensors that can sense movement, pressure, touch, contact, curvature and temperature are being created. Since sensors used in traditional electronics are also rigid, embedding them to a soft robot was a challenge. However it’s now possible by using an organic ionic liquid-based conductive ink that can be 3D printed within the soft elastomeric matrices of the soft robots. In yet another research, adaptive soft robots are made of liquid crystal elastomer, doped with carbon black nanoparticles combined with ultra thin mesh shaped stretchable thermal actuators and silicon-based light sensors. The thermal actuators provide heat to activate the robot. These soft robots therefore can adapt to their environment due to their thermal conductivity. In yet another case, pressure adaptive materials are used which due to fluid movement and change in hydrostatic pressure can change their shape/morphology. Depending upon the kind of sensors used these adaptive soft robots employ smart materials which can be activated by light, heat, pressure or other cues.

The future is bright

  1. Soft robots may be used for making flexible exosuits. These exosuits can give additional strength to the user and may help in rehabilitation of patients or in assisting the elderly.
  2. Soft robots can be used in biomedical applications due to their shape changing properties and their ability to navigate through dramatic changes in body structure. Soft robotics therefore find uses in fields like assistance in surgery, diagnosis and drug delivery, wearable devices, prostheses, biocompatible artificial organs, biodegradable devices, tissue-mimicking active simulators for training and biomechanical studies.
  3. Soft robots can assist in rescue work as they can slip through narrow crevices to search for survivors in the rubble left by an earthquake or bombing.
  4. Soft robots may find a place in large deployable structures for space or deep sea exploration and in transformable architecture.
  5. Climbing soft robots have a wide range of potential applications in the inspection and maintenance of buildings.
  6. Soft robots may be brought into play in underwater propulsion systems due to the elastic actuation strategy that is being implemented in legged-automaton velocity control.

Keep in mind

Soft robots can easily work next to human workers. Since soft robots are made of elastomeric resins, chances of injury due to accident with co-workers is not an issue. Soft robotics systems are thus speedily transform businesses due to their tremendous industrial and collaborative potential. The idea is to build some intelligence into the gripper material itself so that the robotic system can safely grasp and manipulate things of different sizes, shapes, and weights—think apples, marshmallow, soda cans, bottles, packets—without having to do a lot of computations about how to pick them up. They can therefore be applied in the field of food packaging, consumer goods manufacturing, warehouse systems, retail logistics applications, e-commerce order fulfillment, supply chain and automation systems.

Exciting isn’t it!

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