Soft Robotics Inc. gripper

Soft robotics are poised to change how we automate certain tasks and treat patients. Source: Soft Robotics Inc.

Soft robots will change the way you think about how machines interact with life

DEVELOPMENTS IN ROBOTICS is undergoing a major shift as new “soft robots” enter the market to fulfil niches in the market and solve issues that their predecessors were unable to.

According to a report by The Next Web, a new generation of “soft robots” is emerging. These innovations are created using soft materials that allow them to be more pliable and compatible with certain actions that rigid mechatronics is unable to adapt to. This subsection of robotics emerged due to the evolution of new scientific fields such as biomimetics and morphological computation.

Both fields take their cues from nature in order to solve complex problems or enhance the efficiencies of our current systems. They are based off the theory that Mother Nature really does know best, and that by combining what we can see in the natural world with our advances in productivity-enhancing techniques, we can go further than ever before.

“Soft robots” are more dexterous and flexible, making them much more adaptable to a range of different jobs, including medical procedures, agricultural research, or even save-and-rescue missions. The softer these robots are, the better suited they are to interacting with the parts of our lives that are less robust than a metal hand clamp.

Furthermore, soft robotics has the potential to introduce a new wave of prosthetics that can closely mimic human motion while also being more lightweight and less costly.

Students in Harvard’s Global Immersion Summer Program in India recently developed a prosthetic hand powered by robotics that extends into soft fingers that ably mimic a human grip. The program teaches students how to think about making cheap, effective medical solutions. Often, the rigid and jittery movement of robotic hands can give away the prosthetics claims to authenticity, but the smooth glide of the pneumatic artificial muscles in the hand could be a step in introducing a new dimension of motion for amputees.

Similar innovations have been made in the agricultural field where fruit picking is an essential task that has yet to see any successful automation introduced. Fruit and vegetables have been reported to be rotting in the trees and on the vines they are grown on because of a lack of labor. Political arguments about the economics of migration aside, the fact remains that many farms lack enough labor to cope with the abundance of food produced.

However, robots have not evolved enough to be able to do the simple, laborious task of picking fruit partly because hard clamps result in bruised or crushed fruit.

A US robotics company, Soft Robotics Inc., is developing a soft gripper that could allow for a gentler touch to everyday objects. Similar grippers have been developed by a lab in Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, but this time for the benefit of deep sea explorations. The Wyss gripper was inspired by the undulations of boa constrictors, and was designed to carry out research tasks with minimal impact on the natural surroundings.

But perhaps where these robots will be most effective is in the realm of biomedical science, where such tech is already making significant strides. Researchers from Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital have been working on a prototype soft robotic sleeve for the heart that could help damaged organs keep beating, almost like a replacement for the pumping muscles in your chest. The sleeve is designed to contract and twist according to the motion of natural heartbeats.

This could have the effect of not only improving cardiovascular functions that have been impacted by disease, but also replace the current, more crude and less mobile devices that we rely on today.