Researchers Design Soft Robot with Potential Applications

Although Science Fiction novels and movies have shown the world a variety of examples of what robots might look like, none have come close to what researchers have reported to be a new class of soft robot.  Being designed with an artificial muscle, sensors and actuators, this type of robot has the potential for many applications that includes defense, medicine and rescue.


New Class of Soft Robot Capable of Multiple Uses

Any Star Wars fan knows all about who R2-D2 is and gave the audience a futuristic look at what robots could look like; however, researchers who were led by an engineer from the University of Houston have created a unique class of soft robot.  Reported last week in Science Daily, the composition of it has temperature-sensitive artificial muscle, ultra-thin sensing and actuating electronics that allows it to be adaptive to its’ environment and crawl; the movement is like a caterpillar or an inchworm.

The potential applications, according to Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering, range from being used on the battlefield, to surgery and rehabilitation to search and rescue involving natural disasters.  He also said that since the robot could change its shape in responding to the environment, this means it can slip through crevices that are narrow, so it can look for survivors in the rubble caused by a bombing or earthquake.


The way these soft robots are designed allow it to have significant advantages versus rigid, traditional robots that normally would be used for other physical tasks and automation.  Cook said that they sense the change in environment and adapt to slip through.     

Taking a Cue from Nature

The researchers, who said their work was published in the journal of Advanced Materials, said their creation was inspired from nature itself.  They wrote that many creatures, such as inchworms that have completely soft compliant bodies without any rigid components (e.g., bones), exhibit unprecedented abilities in adapting their shapes and morphologies and unique locomotion behaviors.  Traditionally, soft robots do not have the ability to adapt to the environment they are in or the ability to move on their own.

Apparently, the prototype adaptive soft robot is small and includes a liquid crystal elastomer and doped with nanoparticles that is carbon black that will enhance thermal conductivity.  The artificial muscle is combined with silicon-based light sensors and ultra-thin mesh shaped thermal actuators that are stretchable; activating the robot is done through heat that the thermal actuators provide.

While the size of the robot is 28.6 millimeters in length, which is just over an inch, Yu commented that scaling it up would be easy.  Apparently, this will be the next phase along with trying out sensors of various types.  He added that though heat-sensitive sensors are used by the prototype, it would be possible to employ smart materials that become activated by light or other stimulus; this is the first of its kind.  You can use other sensors, depending on what you want it to do.  


Obviously, a robot that offers multiple ways that it could be used is worth further research and development.  Hopefully, it can be used in a way that can benefit others instead of causing harm.  Anyone who wishes to see the robot in motion and lick on the following link.