Soft robotics might sound like the keen interest in an adorable plush version of Wall-E, but in reality it's the key to breakthrough engineering the likes of which we have never seen before. Taking inspiration from nature's jointless wonders, the caterpillar, the starfish and the octopus, bio-inspired robotics has been declared as the undeniable future of artificial intelligence.
First we have the starfish multigate softbot developed at Harvard. Most robotic systems are hard and mainly comprise of metallic structures with traditional bearing joints, but this creates a problem with natural movement, as wheels or treads have to be used to compensate for the lack of flexibility and strength in those joints. The starfish soft robot relies on elastomeric structures (flexible fabrics capable of a full range of motion) and fibril arrangements (minute long strands that together can form rounded structures) of soft plastic muscles that mirror its coral dwelling namesake. Because of the freedom of movement that an actuator has, the starfish robot can contract and expand, moving in any direction, without restriction.
What makes this robot so amazing is that only one single source of pressure is needed to create this incredibly complex movement. For example, the robot's grip motion is created by a small amount of compressed air used to expand the muscles from a concave to a convex position, gently but securely grasping hold of any object of any weight.
Moving one stage further is the incredible Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Italy, who have created a soft robotic octopus arm designed to grip a human hand or plastic bottle with amazing strength and precision. This is the first step toward a model for an underwater rescue robot, capable of salvaging wreckages and injured people in difficult underwater environments. The Italian scientists plan to complete this entirely soft robotic octopus as early as January next year.
On a similar vein, plans are in motion to develop the starfish design into an earthquake recovery unit. With its ability to squeeze into the tightest of spaces, even through 2cm wide cracks, the soft robot can be threaded into piles of rubble and then programmed to expand, creating a safe air pocket to release any trapped victims, leading them to safety. The American government has also thought of commissioning a robot such as this to aid manoeuvring through a battlefield. Once again the US military has tainted something awesome.
On the medical side of things, soft robotics could soon become a popular alternative to current diagnostic tools. Patches, sensors and test pads used to diagnose patients with a world of ailments, from cardiac arrhythmia to diabetes, have a reputation for being cumbersome and even painful. With the help of soft robotics, skin-like substances can be used directly on the body, in the form of a plaster, glove or featherlight patch, to read any number of fluctuations in the patient's condition, immediately diagnosing any problem. This development could revolutionise the way we monitor our own personal health and would save the NHS millions every year.
There is one more slightly unorthodox strain of thought about the direction soft robotics could go in. With a realistic flesh-like appearance and a warm to the touch feel, soft robotics could be in the nascent stages of being blended with humanoid robotics. Rodolphe Hasslevander, director of humanoid robotics for the CRIIF (Centre de Robotique Intégrée d-Île-de-France), has told the public that the principal problem facing robotics is that the general market just isn't ready to accept such vast leaps in technology. Using more familiar, natural fabrics to engineer already well known robotic structures, could literally 'give a face' to modern robotics, increasing the public's capacity to accept and embrace this inevitable technology.
With humanoid robots already in such advanced stages, it's just a matter of time before the two robotic worlds collide. So if we keep our minds open and support our soft robotics specialists, your very own huggable, loveable, squishy robot helper could be posted to your doorstep sooner than you think. Let's hope it'll be as cute as Wall-E.