The future of robotics is here for the most part, and when you take a look at how much of our world is digitalized or run by a machine, that fact is solidified. Nearly every profession makes use of a robot of some sort to help get the job done. Schools, businesses, and even countless homes utilize computer technology and AI software. Robots provide us with many benefits and reduce the cost of human resources, as well as the risks involved with human life. So, robots are pretty much here to stay. Considering how many robots we see in our daily lives, scientists and engineers often work hand in hand to design better and smarter robots. That’s why the latest trend to hit the robotics world is a specific type of robot: soft robots.
What are Soft Robots?
Soft robots are robots that use some sort of rubber or other soft building material instead of the usual rigid components. These robots usually have some sort of hardware piece inside that actually runs the whole machine, but the outside is mostly soft and agile. Soft robots have started making a splash in the industrial market where machinery is used more heavily.
These robots are preferred over their harder counterparts because they’re generally safer to work around. If you accidentally come into contact with a moving soft robot, you won’t suffer as much damage as if it were completely metal in and out. These softer robots are also more agile and can fit into many more places for work compared to hard robots. They fill a need for many specific fields like medical equipment construction and the handling of live organisms.
Soft robots are still newer to the economy than hard ones, but researchers at Harvard University have found a way to bridge the gap significantly. Their latest robot design is also a softie, meaning that it’s a soft robot. A team from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering designed this robot to work with just rubber, soft plastic, and air. There aren’t even any electronics used for this product. So, just what can it do? This robot is a state-of-the-art gripper hand, and that allows for easy pick up of soft materials. This type of machine is going to be useful for tasks that require a soft and steady hand, like sorting fruits on a conveyer belt or placing glass bottles on the line.
You may be wondering how this soft robot gripper works if there’s no electricity powering it. Normal soft robots run based on microfluidic circuits. While these kinds of circuits work well, they still have limitations. They also need some form of glass or hard plastic to work, and they ultimately hinder the robot’s performance. But the team at Harvard bypassed this issue by using a completely new method to power the robot.
Instead of the microfluidic circuit system, they chose to work with an air-based pneumatic system. By programming the machine to respond to certain input commands with different output commands, one can control how the gripper lifts up an object. For example, if you were to input the “not” command into the high-pressure logic gate, you would get low a shot of low- pressure air. In this way, using commands like “and,” “not,” and “or,” users can replicate many actions that previous full-fledged computers could do.
While this machine is still fresh off of the drawing board, its unique design and positive results so far showcase a very promising future. At this rate, we all may become soft towards the idea of a soft robot like this one.