Squishy, Soft Robots Crawl Their Way to the Cutting Edge of Science

A new breed of robots based on spineless creatures such as starfish and caterpillars could change the way humans interact with machines.

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Rob Shepherd

“The two things that really have to be addressed are actuation—how do you actually make these things move—and the other thing is creating a new theory for controlling soft materials,” says Dr. Barry Trimmer of Tufts University’s Soft Robotics Research Group. “The mathematics are extremely complex. It’s a very complicated problem that hasn’t been addressed by enough people or with enough money.”

The computer models for controlling conventional robots are pretty well-established; two rigid surfaces, connected by a joint, can only relate to each other through a certain number of angles.

In soft robotics, however, it’s a whole different ballgame. One surface might be stretching outwards while another is constricting, meaning that relating any two points to each other can become a real pain.

That would explain the draw for computer scientists, who are intrigued by creating new, wildly innovative computer models. Neurobiologists like Dr. Trimmer come for another reason.

“I’m already studying what I like to call a ‘living prototype’ for the robots,” said Trimmer, who is developing a robot that inches forward like a caterpillar. “Soft robots should be designed to operate in natural environments and interact with humans, and most robots just don’t do that.”

One way to create more nature-friendly robots would be to make them out of biopolymers that would decompose in the wild and be safe to use in the human body, which could eventually lead to robotic endoscopes that could provide doctors with previously impossible footage.

Trimmer Labs

Dr. Trimmer is also working on a machine called the GoQBot which aims to solve a fundamental problem in soft robotics: Moving soft materials with compressed air or hydraulics is inherently a slow process. GoQBot attempts to remedy this by curling into a ball and rolling, just like real caterpillars do.

Another robot in the very early development stages is a crawling water bottle which would find victims stuck in rubble, set off a beacon and then provide them with around a liter of water, which could keep them alive for an additional day while search and rescue teams locate them.

A plus when it comes to basing small robots off of simple creatures such as caterpillars and starfish is the low cost; each is developed to be disposable after its task is done.

Of course, not everything in soft robotics resembles an insect or sea creature.

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