Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Why ‘soft robots’ got NASA, medics and techies so excited

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The appeal of “flexible robots” lies in their flexibility and versatility.

NASA scientists are considering them one day skitter on the surface of Mars. Others see them making their way through the the deepest corners of the human body.

Another possibility, according to Ellen Mazumdar, assistant professor of engineering at Georgia Tech, is that they could be used to sift through the wreckage of a building following an earthquake or fire.

Prostheses? Sure. Exosuits, to aid recovery after injury or stroke? Why not?

Fold them, shape them, however you want. Soft robots are made up of spongier stuff, including nanomaterials, enabling them to approximate biological functions like those of human muscles. We could say, in fact, that these robots are almost animated by nanomaterials.

And here’s the thing: Researchers are only scratching the skin of soft robots. The market for them is expected to reach $ 2.16 billion by 2024.

Metal robots are much more limited. They were built with speed and precision in mind, making them ideal for things like assembly line work. But they’re not that versatile.

While flexible robots can also be used in industrial environment, especially collaborative robots (also known as “cobots”) working alongside humans – they are hardly confined to it.

Like Steven Vogel, the late biomechanics researcher at Duke University, once written, these robots are more in tune with the natural world, where rigid materials are distributed “with a stingy hand”. Bones and teeth, he admitted, are exceptions to the rule, but where humans have often used rigid materials like metal or wood, nature is more likely to use flexible materials ( but strong), such as muscle and cartilage. As an example, he contrasted a door hinge with a hinge of another kind – the ear of a pet.

Humanity is starting to find its place, however. Consider our increased use of printed liquid metal, for example. The material, which looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, can be used to create stretchy electronics and clothing that conforms to irregular geometric shapes, including the human body. The implications are vast, as liquid metal can also be used with electrodes, interconnects, and antennas.

Liquid silicone rubber is another prime example and has long excited the soft robotics community. In 2016, Harvard scientists used it to develop the Octobot, the very first soft autonomous robot. Inspired by octopuses, these squishy robots can twist and sidestep obstacles that may prove impossible for jerky and rigid metal robots like those depicted in the likes of Terminator or Star wars.

“[A] a very interesting potential application for this type of robot is in high risk and dangerous areas like search and rescue“Said Michael Wehner, a Harvard researcher on the project Live Science.

Surprisingly, the Octobot is cheaper to make than a latte, and it only costs 5 ¢ to refill it with fuel. One can imagine hundreds of cheap, sweet robots sent to investigate a scene, squeeze through obstacles and navigate tight spaces to aid in a rescue mission.

“The principal objective [of soft robotics] is not to manufacture ultra-precise machines, because we already have them, ”said biomedical engineer Giada Gerboni in a TED Conference 2018, “But to make robots able to cope with unexpected situations in the real world.”

Scientists at NASA, for example, are developing robots that they hope will not only be able to roam a distant world like March, but also form temporary shelters and perform various tasks.

Gerboni also discussed the development of surgical instruments (especially endoscopes) that use soft robotics, allowing them to navigate body structures more easily than traditional instruments. This gives doctors a much clearer view of the area of ​​a patient’s body they wish to examine.

Likewise, carbon-based titanium polymers can be used in combination with synthetic polymers to create ultra-fine artificial muscles. This technology has been demonstrated in artistic replicas dancing butterflies, floating leaves and blossoming flowers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

Soft robots are not without flaws. Specifically, scientists have found that fluid actuators – the devices that bring robots to life – are slow to energize due to the amount of fluid needed to force movement, or because their flow is slowed down by various structures within the device (such as tubes and valves).

However, Harvard researchers are developing a workaround based on the physical principles of a children’s pop-up toy. Noting that the buckling of such toys leads to the release of a large amount of energy, they design actuators with two retractable caps, one inside the other. When the outer cap is inflated, pressure builds on the inner one. When it deforms, the release of energy propels the device.

Soft robots have a potential that extends to Mars and vice versa, and they will undoubtedly become a more important part of society in the years to come. Their possibilities are only limited by the human imagination.

Don Basile is co-founder and CEO of Monsoon Blockchain.

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