A new breed of robots based on spineless creatures such as starfish and caterpillars could change the way humans interact with machines.
It’s not organic; in fact, it’s a robot designed by Dr. George Whitesides and his team at Harvard. “The field is so young,” says Whitesides. “As we see it, we’re in the stage where almost everything we try works.”
While the idea of biomimetic robots—biologically inspired robots that mimic animals such as dogs and ostriches—isn’t new, soft robotics is in its infancy, really only taking off within the last five or six years.
It’s a field that throws a lot of the conventions of robotics out the window. Instead of metal rods or sheets, most soft robots utilize materials similar to the elastic polymers used to make Dr. Whitesides’ “starfish,”
Carmel Majidi, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, says that the field of soft robotics is still fairly new and that researchers need to find alternatives to air pumps as a way to control the devices. The robots will also need ways to sense their own position. For that he’s exploring the use of microfluidics, specifically liquid-filled microchannels inside a film of rubber.
“Something as simple as saltwater would render the channel conductive so that the device would become electronic. But there are other fluids that could work, such as Galinstan—an alloy of gallium, indium, and tin that’s liquid at room temperature and a million times as conductive as saline, making it comparable to copper wire.
“And soft devices would be comfortable for human use. “You can wear them, essentially,” Majidi says. He envisions a sensor worn over a finger or other joint to monitor body motion. Or the soft circuits could be integrated with textiles to create a wearable keyboard or other “smart” clothing.