From re-growing broken limbs to creating extra strong muscles, everything that we once deemed to be impossible can come true with the advent of Soft Robotic technology. Since the first soft robots were invented in 2011, this field of technology has exploded with potential in almost every sector imaginable.
What are Soft Robots?
The field of soft robotics is the side of robotics that draws the most inspiration from nature. Unlike traditional robotics, soft robots work with highly malleable and compliant materials such as silicone elastomers and hydraulic fluidics. This allows soft robots to accomplish many humanoid tasks that were originally impossible through traditional robotics.
Some of the most promising areas of application for soft robotics include wearable soft robots, prosthetic limbs, and origami muscle robots. Each area traditionally focuses on biomimetics; however, once developed, these technologies have invaluable uses in many areas. Combined, these robots have the potential to bring about the next revolution in biomimetics and transform the way we live and function as human beings.
Wearable Soft Robots
One of the greatest challenges in robotics is providing muscular support such that we can mimic the human muscles. This can be invaluable to patients recovering from surgery or those with motor impairments. Current technology is limited in that it cannot recreate soft tissues or muscles. Previous attempts at providing muscular support used bulky motors or fluidic actuators which require external pumps, making them inaccessible to those that need it.
The soft robotic approach to this problem is perhaps the most viable in that it allows us to mimic the motion of these soft tissues and doesn’t require any bulky equipment or external compression. The soft robotic version essentially includes a stretchable pump and a McKibben actuator. The actuator is powered by an electrically driven fluid system, which makes it very lightweight without the need for any external help. The stretchable pump makes it possible for the whole device to mould itself around the tissue and provide maximum support.
Although the recent advances in this soft wearable technology are quite promising, these muscle supporting robots are far from being commercially available. However, there is much research currently underway, and this technology may become commercially available in the near future.
The idea of prosthetic limbs has been around for almost a decade and a half. This type of technology can be invaluable to those who have lost body parts due to accidents, or even to veterans injured at war. However, creating fully functioning replacement limbs is a task that is harder than it seems.
Current attempts at creating prosthetics largely use 3D Printing technology to design and print custom arms and legs for humans and even animals. This works great in terms of customization, however, these prosthetics are stiff and do not respond well to motion. Soft robotics makes it possible for us to create fully-functional body parts that can not only adjust to human motion but also mimic it. This is done through the use of highly flexible materials such as thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). In order to mimic human motion, strong pneumatic actuation is used. The entire assembly is guided by a myriad of sensors placed on the apparatus, which tell the artificial parts what to do.
There are many prosthetic limbs and replacements available on the market today. However, true prosthesis is only possible through the use of soft robotics which is currently under development at many major research institutions.
As mentioned before, soft robotics takes much of its inspiration from nature. Many things in nature, such as proteins and enzymes, are in fact actuated through a complex folding motion. This type of actuation provides tremendous power which allows them to lift enormous weights and propel through the dense medium of human tissue. This is also exactly what origami robots aspire to do.
Fundamentally, origami robots are just plain sheets of metal or plastic that fold into certain shapes; allowing them to walk, throw, and even swim. Unlike naturally folding actuators, origami robots use micro pneumatic actuators which enable them to fold into these complex shapes. These shapes are then manipulated by the same actuators. It is this folding, unfolding, and re-folding motion that makes origami robots so powerful. What makes these robots so desirable is that they can fold into impossibly tight spaces and expand as required, all without losing the power of pneumatics.
Currently, all these robots can do is fold and roll around. They may not seem to be very useful today; however, once the technology has evolved, it can be an invaluable tool in many applications (including the prosthetics discussed above!).
Next Steps for Soft Robotics
The future of soft robotics is bright. There is much research going on in the sectors mentioned above and the applications for the technology are limitless. For example, origami robots can also be used as climbing robots for maintenance and inspection of buildings. In the future, the field of prosthetics is also projected to grow and be able to mimic animal motion along with the human motion. Accurate mimicry of animal motion can also cause major ripples in the automation industry. Wearable technology is also projected to be available not only to the injured but also to the general populace, giving us a boost in our day-to-day activities.
There is no doubt, however, that the sector most impacted by the advent of soft robotics will be biomimetic - the study of mimicking nature. Current technology in the field simply uses rigid bodies to create the illusion of natural movement, however, soft robotics enables us to experience the real deal. A great example of this is bird flight. It is well known that bird flight is the most efficient way of flying; however, gliders and “bird drones” really only create the illusion of bird flight using rigid bodies. True bird flight can only be possible with the evolution of soft robotics.
At the current pace of the field of soft robotics, we can expect to be able to move from illusion to reality very shortly.