Problem Solving With Soft Robots

Late last month, researchers at Harvard University unveiled a new, autonomous robot made entirely from soft materials. This prototype was hailed as a leap forward in soft robotics, an emerging field that may someday have a host of applications in industry, healthcare, and daily life.

“You want to build something that makes people stronger and move faster,” said Kari Love, a soft robotic engineer, “but if you are using a hard robot it doesn’t interface with the human body in a way that is ergonomic.”

Love works at Super-Releaser, a Brooklyn-based consultancy that is already applying soft robotic technology to practical and commercial problems.

For one client, Super-Releaser helped with the design of a robotic insole for a shoe that would sense the wearer’s movements and adjust its shape to suit what the wearer was doing from moment to moment. This design was only a concept, but it shows one way soft materials can be used to build a robot that works closely with the human body.

“We think of all of this architecture of robotics that’s made from hard materials as only a small fraction of the total world of possibilities,” said Matthew Borgatti, the company’s lead scientist.

Soft robots are already in commercial use as grippers, another application where they have an advantage over hard ones.

For a hard robot to pick up, for example, a light bulb, the designers have to carefully program the robot to exert just enough force to grip the bulb without crushing it. This requires complex sensors, or else an object that is always the same shape.

Soft Robotics Inc., a Massachusetts-based startup, has pioneered the large-scale production of soft robotic grippers.

“We’re the first to market with actual soft robotic technology,” said CEO Carl Vause. Vause said his company’s soft grippers can be used to handle objects — like vegetables, bread, or packaged in a warehouse — that are different shapes and can be easily damaged.

Super-Releaser has taken a different approach, focusing on consulting rather than developing a product for market. The company is just over a year old, but they already list past projects as subcontractors on a NASA funded project and as consultants for Google’s research division Google X.

“Some of the best ones end up being secret. So we can say client names, but we can’t say what we worked on,” said Love.

Asides from consulting, Borgatti said they also do research on the unsolved problems of soft robotics. They make much of this research public, including the design for a 3D-printed walking robot controlled by compressed air.

“The more people you can get working on soft robotic problems,” said Love “it’s going to raise the level of everyone working in the field.”

For now, however, soft robotics remain a small part of the robotics industry.

“There’s a lot of interest, excitement, and investment in these technologies,” said Robert Doyle, director of communications for the Association for Advancing Automation, a trade group for the robotics and automation industry.

He said the industry is still primarily using hard robots, but that soft robots present opportunities for the future.

“Soft robotics is in an exploratory phase,” said Rebecca Kramer, an assistant professor at Purdue University whose research includes soft robotics.

“A lot of research right now is going into manufacturing processes,” she said, “Scalable manufacturing with soft materials is essential in order to get to a product that people can actually use.”

Soft robotics may have many applications in the future, Kramer said, but it’s hard to accurately predict how long scientific research is going to take.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do with soft materials,” said Love.