Inspired by the biomechanics of a manta ray, a team of researchers at North Carolina State University developed a soft, energy-efficient robot capable of swimming four times faster than earlier models. Rather than a motor, the robot uses bistable wings that are passively driven by moving the central body, an innovation that hails from a laboratory specialized in soft robotics. This original field of research could in the coming years bring many breakthrough innovations in health, industry and video games. Thanks to this field, certain fashion brands are able to print shoes in 3D, for example.
Soft robotics aim to meet historic needs, like handling fragile objects, moving in sensitive environments like the human body, and could even be capable of self-repair in the event of “injury”. In other words, the integration of new materials such as silicone in robots is about to open the way to new technical and ecological performances, since we can now build robots able to change shape, just like living matter.
Reinventing the way materials are manufactured
Pablo Valdivia y Alvarado, a researcher at Singapore University of Technology and Design and the director of the Bio-inspired Robotics and Design Laboratory, sees this field as “materials-based robotics”. Its singularity is its use of new materials to manufacture robots. Until now, robotics had evolved based on innovations from mechanics and electronics. Now, the objective is to develop mechanisms akin to those of living organisms inspired by biomimicry, in invertebrates, for example.
The environmental impact is significant, as many researchers are working on the possibility of printing robots using organic and biological materials with biodegradable properties.
These new robots could also eventually replace traditional models, because “What can be achieved in traditional robotics can also be achieved in soft robotics,” said the researcher. However, Valdivia y Alvarado believes the adoption of these new processes will take time: “There are no standardized machines to design our projects. We must therefore create new manufacturing methods.” Soft robotics hold vast promises: this field can be combined with tissue engineering and synthetic biology to design hybrid structures with unique sensing and mobility capabilities, for example. Like the manta ray-inspired swimming robot, we realize that the mechanical, and therefore algorithmic, complexity of such devices can easily be reduced. Upstream, however, this approach requires significant computing resources to model the behavior of these hybrid machines.
A field at the service of sustainable development
“In soft robotics, the integration of electricity and electronics is not obligatory,” explains Valdivia y Alvarado. Soft robotics require different designs in the ability to actuate mechanisms, detect the environment, convert movement, and even in the way devices use energy. Thus, their energy source can come from flexible or stretchable electronic components, and the use of electrochemical sensors offers the possibility for these robots to feed themselves in their environment. “The environmental impact is significant, since many researchers are working on ways to print robots with organic and biological materials with biodegradable properties.”
From experimentation to practice
Soft robotics are mainly experimental, because “Traditional engineers don’t yet have the technology and expertise to understand new materials and develop new manufacturing technologies,” says Valdivia y Alvarado. “Grippers for handling fragile objects are the sole components currently used. They adapt to different object sizes and are more secure in human-machine interfaces.” Future clothing intended for experiments in the metaverse and for allowing wearers to experience sensations close to reality, thanks to haptic feedback, are also being studied. It’s not surprising that one of the few companies investing in soft robotics research is Meta, Facebook’s parent company.