The emerging field of soft robotics

While traditional robots are typically made of hard mechanical parts, a new trend in robotics is emerging to create durable and malleable robots using soft materials that conform to the human body. Kari Love, Soft Goods Engineer at robotics company, Super Releaser joins Hari Sreenivasan to talks soft robotics.

TRANSCRIPT

Today's technology has taken robots out of the factory and integrated them into the world around us to serve as medical devices, prosthetics, and even to replace humans in the workplace.

While traditional robots are typically made of hard, mechanical parts, a new trend in robotics is emerging to create durable and malleable robots using soft materials that conform to the human body.

Kari Love, Soft Goods Engineer at robotics company Super-Releaser, joins us now.

So, first, what are soft robotics?

So I think you did a wonderful introduction to start with.

So, when we think about soft robotics, we often place it in direct contrast to traditional robotics, in which almost all of the components are hard.

Whereas in soft robotics and also in hybrid robotics, a lot of the main components are made of soft things.

So soft things could be things like silicone, fabrics, or it could be things like actual cells.

So soft robotics is a very broad field in terms of what it means.

It could be any soft component.

So what defines a robot?

I like to take robots very much back to the basics and to look at them as something that can do a complex series of events that do work primarily and also that use computer control.

Okay.

So what are the examples that you have here?

So the examples I have here aren't computer-controlled.

They are just physical embodiments of soft actuators.

So this is a gripper.

A gripper is a very classic example of why you would want a soft robot.

Hard robots that are grippers can only interact usually with things that are the same and are durable.

But say you want it to interact with something like a tomato, or you want it to interact with lots of different kinds of objects.

A hard robot would have to have a lot of sensors and a lot of complexity to be able to handle those things whereas you could have a simple on-and-off kind of sensor to actuate a soft robot.

So that looks just like a blood pressure cuff that we see in the doctor's office.

This is.

So, if this were computer-controlled, you can hook it up to a computer-controlled valve that has air pressure, but this is just a hand demonstration.

Great.

So it could squeeze a tomato without crushing it whereas you really have to teach a mechanical robot exactly the right pressure, and, you know, it's probably going to have several spoiled tomatoes in the process.

Yes.

And then I brought this other gripper, as well.

So this gripper is interesting because it gets its ability to bend from the form that it has whereas this is one that has a very simple shape, but it has fabric embedded inside, and that's what allows it to conform to a different shape.

So these are two kinds of soft actuators that make the same motion but through a different sort of mechanic.

So do you see soft and hard robots kind of working in tandem?

I think that, when we talk about soft robotic research, we're talking about very early stages of research right now, and so a lot of the most interesting research and the most useful to building out a library of possible mechanisms is very early.

But we will see the fastest gains maybe in the hybrid robotic space where you use maybe half hard components and half soft components.

When we look at our own bodies, we are soft and hard together.

We're held in tension, and we are utilizing all of these soft components to make us move.

Right.

So give me some examples.

I mean, ow would, say, NASA use a soft robot in the future?

So NASA is a great case because of the extreme environment.

There's a lot more call for kind of these early research phases.

So one thing that Super-Releaser was lucky enough to work on was as a subcontract for Final Frontier design on a NASA contract to work on a mechanical counterpressure concept.

So mechanical counterpressure is where, instead of creating a bubble of air around an astronaut to protect them from the vacuum of space, you can provide physical pressure directly onto the body.

Another area in which NASA is very interested in utilizing soft components is for rovers.

So, for example, if you have a rover that is going to be underneath an ocean... So, here on Earth, most sea life is soft because the pressure of the water on it is such that a soft component is more durable and flexible in that space.

Another example, in terms of the rover space, is say you want to land a rover on a place where there's no atmosphere.

Our traditional use of something like a parachute isn't functional there.

So, if you can make a robot that can bounce when it hits the surface, you don't need the atmosphere to slow its descent.

So, when you said an astronaut can have pressure right on their skin, so the space suit would be almost a soft robot that they're wearing that would continue to regulate the pressure around them?

Yes.

There is a concept where it would be passive, but the thing is, as you move, your body shape changes, so an active system would be able to apply more even pressure.

Okay.

So, besides NASA, do you see this changing the assembly lines of what we consider the world of robots today?

Yeah.

A lot of the companies that are working on developing, putting this directly into the field are interested in robotic grippers, either like the one I showed that is pneumatic and bends, or it utilizes vacuum.

They're called jamming grippers.

So they have a bunch of loose particles that, when the particles get under a vacuum, they harden, so you can conform around something and then suck the air out, and that allows you to pick it up.

So what's the thing that, you know, you're looking forward to 5 years out, 10 years out, that you think, 'Well, it's just this one or two other things happen.

Soft robots could really get to the next level'?

I think that the thing that I am most excited about is actually the medical space because, as I mentioned, there are soft robots that are made out of cells.

So that is something that could do all kinds of medical work inside of your body.

There is work on edible robotics, and the focus on that is that, if you had something that was in your stomach, you could swallow the robot, and then it could do work.

An example of that was there's a robot that's focused on getting watch batteries out of people's stomachs, which apparently this is a problem.

People are swallowing watch batteries.

Okay.

But there all kinds of ways in which soft robotics could revolutionize the way we do work.

All right.

Kari Love, Super-Releaser.

Thanks so much.

Great. Thank you.