The growing interest in a new field known as soft robotics comes from the potential of these systems to address problems that can’t be solved by robots built from rigid materials. Many innovative solutions have been developed over the past several years to design soft systems and components. Here is some insight into the growing field of soft robotics and how these solutions can impact humans.
What Are Soft Robotics?
The word “robot” is likely to generate images of metallic systems that are full of gears and circuits. The robots of our imagination are durable and probably a bit clunky. But there are a lot of uses for robotics that don’t require such rigid and bulky systems. This has given birth to something called soft robotics.
Soft robotics is a new subset of robotics meant to mimic living organisms in their makeup. They are made of materials called “elastomers,” which have high elasticity and viscosity levels. Soft robots can adapt to their environments and absorb shocks better than conventional robots.
Soft robotics was first developed in the 1950s with different types of orthotics used in medicine. But the term “soft robotics” is relatively new, as are the many advances and uses in this field.
Comparison of Soft Robotics vs. Classic Robotics
Soft robotics offer some extraordinary advances in the field of robotics. Here are some of the advantages and drawbacks of this type of robotics in comparison to traditional methods.
Advantages of Soft Robotics
- Elastically soft and deformable vs. rigid
- Adaptable shape
- Can achieve complex motion
- Collision avoidance through impact absorption
- Low cost materials
- Compatible for human interaction
Drawbacks of Soft Robotics
- Can be challenging to control
- Less powerful than rigid robotics
- Requires specific electronic controls
How Soft Robotics Are Helping Humans
Even though it’s a relatively new technology, there are already a few key applications for soft robotics. Here is how these solutions are helping humans.
Traditional robotics used in industrial processes, like manufacturing, tend to be more linear and rigid in their movement. But some tasks are more delicate, requiring human hands. Soft robotics can be an ideal replacement for these functions as they have the ability to replicate human motion.
One of the benefits of using soft robotics in industrial settings is that they can reduce repetitive motion injuries, which are prolific. Soft robots can also deliver the performance and consistency required to boost productivity.
The birth of soft robotics came from the medical industry, with the development of things like an inflatable inner tube inside a mesh clamp and the more recent Direct Cardiac Compression Device (DCC). These are post-operative uses, but soft robotics are also now being employed during surgical procedures to improve patient outcomes.
Most minimally-invasive surgeries require the use of various instruments. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers recently released a study that revealed the benefits of using modular soft manipulators during these procedures.
Robots that operate different types of consumer goods can be rigid, just like industrial robots. One area that could benefit from soft robotics is children’s toys. In fact, researchers at Carnegie Mellon's Morphing Matter Lab have explored the benefits of using soft robotics in this area.
The team of researchers created interactive soft objects that can “hug” a child. The success of items like this gives hope that the technology can be expanded to other areas such as accessory and garment design.
While still in the development phase, soft robotics in the automotive industry is undoubtedly on the horizon. When it comes to automotive design, the inclusion of soft robotics would likely be for aesthetic purposes rather than functional.
For example, The Mercedes Visions AVTR uses soft robotics to create “flapping” wings with limited functionality. But soft robotics can certainly be used on the automotive assembly line for the installation and movement of parts.
Finally, let’s not forget about space. A team at NASA has been researching the use of soft robotics to explore distant planets due to their flexibility and adaptability. These robots would also be ideal candidates to help out right here on Earth in disaster situations like fires and earthquakes, where navigation through small spaces is required.
How Soft Robotics Are Being Used in Logistics
There’s always room for more efficiency in the logistics industry. And soft robotics is one of the ways businesses in this sector can gain an advantage. Specifically, this technology is being used in order fulfillment and warehousing for various automation solutions.
The Massachusetts-based company Soft Robotics, just developed a soft gripper system that can pick and place items in packaging and assembly tasks. The technology was developed at the George Whitesides lab at Harvard University.
The soft gripper system can pick up, move, and manipulate items of varying weight, shape, and size. It contains sensors and exception handling to achieve accuracy. The solution is fast, which creates efficiency for businesses. And it’s adaptable for a variety of applications.
In 2020, the SuperPick Polybag system was launched as a turnkey solution for eCommerce companies looking to streamline order processing and reverse logistics. The system uses soft robotics technology and malleable bags instead of cardboard boxes to pick, scan, and deliver products of varying shape, size, weight, and fragility.
The field of soft robots holds a ton of potential for humans, from surgery to logistics to space exploration. These bendable machines can mimic so many functions that they give individuals and businesses too many benefits to count. For logistics providers, though, soft robotics can provide additional automation functions, allowing companies to increase efficiency and achieve better overall results.