Author: Suzanne Jacobs

New generation of robots will blur line between machine and nature

Our robots are going soft. Or at least they will be if Barry Trimmer has anything to say about it.

Trimmer is the editor-in-chief of a new scientific journal called Soft Robotics. The journal, also known as SoRo, will chronicle the rise of squishy robots designed to mimic living things.

In an editorial introducing the new publication, Trimmer, director of the Neuromechanics and Biomimetic Devices Lab at Tufts University, explained why scientists should look to nature for engineering tips.

Because I am a trained biologist, my tendency is to look at the gap between animal and robot performance from an evolutionary perspective. Animals are astoundingly adept at a wide range of things. Because of this versatility, they are rarely as fast or efficient as machines doing specific tasks,” he wrote. “In contrast, robots are excellent at well-defined tasks in controlled environments, but they are not very versatile.

In order to get the best of both worlds, scientists from various fields, including mechanical engineering, synthetic biology and physics, are pooling their knowledge to figure out how best to create new materials that feel and act like living tissue.

After all, Trimmer pointed out, animals and machines run on the same basic principles. We have a central control system (brain) that runs our sensors (nerves), motors (muscles) and fuel systems (guts and liver). The difference is, we’re wet and squishy, and machines are dry and rigid.

In another paper in SoRo’s pilot issue, Dr. Carmel Madiji of Carnegie Mellon University discussed the possible applications for such lifelike machines.  Because these soft devices will feel like biological tissue, he wrote, they’ll be very useful in medicine and assisted living. People who have suffered strokes or brain injuries, for example, could use wearable robots to help them with fine motor tasks like picking up objects, he wrote.

The flexibility and maneuverability of soft robots will also make them much better than traditional robots at traversing rough terrain and fitting through tight spaces, so they’ll be ideal for tasks like search and rescue missions that require wading through rubble, he added.

Trimmer estimates that we’ll start seeing soft robots within the decade, but there are still major barriers to overcome before that happens. Dr. Mirko Kovac of Imperial College, London said in an interview with Trimmer that the primary obstacles are improving the efficiency of these machines and creating better artificial muscles and flexible batteries.

Despite these challenges, the overall theme that flowed through this first issue of SoRo was potential.

“By building soft materials into the fundamental design of machines, or by building them completely from soft materials,” Timmer wrote, “we add a new dimension for design and create and untapped resource for entirely new types of machinery.”

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