Soft Robotics – What is it?

Introduction

Soft robotics is an emerging sub-field of robotics that deals with the design and construction of robots that are not rigid. This is in contrast to traditional robots. The resulting soft robots are generally constructed with soft and deformable materials.

These materials include silicone, plastics, fabrics, rubber, or compliant mechanical parts like springs. Soft robots, like other robots, can actively interact with their environment. They however can potentially find use in very unique applications due to their ability to undergo relatively large deformations. This ability is as a result of inherent structural compliance due to the ‘softness’ of the materials used for their construction and other physical deformation features added by design.

Origin and Motivation

Biology and nature are generally recognized to have inspired the field of soft robotics. The filed evolved out of a need to have robots perform well in executing tasks in highly uncertain environments. Such tasks include, movement on rough, uneven and unknown terrain or grasping and lifting unknown objects. In these applications consideration is also given to the ability of deformable materials to store and release energy. This ability can be very beneficial to the efficient use of energy for movement and locomotion.

The materials used for the construction of soft robots are also potentially cheaper than those used for traditional robots. This is because soft robots generally do not require components such as metal parts and high-torque servos generally employed in traditional robotic systems.

Another motivation for the development of soft robots is safety. In the future it is expected that humans will have much more interaction with robots. This increased interaction will most likely make accidental physical contact unavoidable with potentially devastating consequences, case in point. Soft robots, because of their physical softness can therefore play a role in this regard. This is because their softness allows for safe physical contact with living cells and human bodies.

 Work for the Future

The soft robotics field is however still quit young. This means that a lot of research is still needed before soft robots are a part of our daily lives. Most soft robots are still in the prototype stage. Therefore they are yet to be demonstrated and proven useful under real-world conditions or for industrial applications.

One major obstacle is due to the same non-rigid nature of soft robots. This makes them difficult to model and simulate and therefore hard to design and control. Nevertheless the filed continues to grow as the development of soft robots has many potential benefits to mankind.