If you’re teetering on the edge of what robots should look like, you’re not alone. Most people lean more towards those science fiction robots in iRobot or Philip K. Dick’s 1948 science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which more people probably know as the 1982 film, Bladerunner. Yes, Rachel was a robot of sorts, android to be correct and prettier to look at than, say ZenRobotic’s industrial waste sorting robots.
Literature and film have always planted ideas in our head, romanticized our images of what robots look like and what they do. The reality is that robotics have been in our lives for a while, with the first electronic autonomous robot introduced in 1948 they moved into industry, military, the home and now gaming, entertainment and increasingly healthcare and well-being. But there’s still a disconnect between what we see in the movies versus what is really happening in robotics.
Technology that supports the advancement of robotics is coming out of many of the research labs today including Harvard’s Whitesides Research Group, Italy’s Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna and Carnegie Mellon’s Soft Machine Lab that are looking at inventive ways to create and apply robotic technology in our lives.
Take soft robotics. A relatively new domain in the field of robotics, but one that has a lot of potential to change how we relate with robots but also how they are used. IEEE Spectrum recently reported that at Harvard’s Whitesides Research Group they focused on creating new robotics structures that are soft, not rigid – blending together organic chemistry, soft materials science and robotics to create the Soft Star which can grip an object with it’s rubber tentacles inflated with air.
In Italy at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna they created soft robotic Octopus designed to grip a human hand or grab a plastic bottle. The arm is designed to mimic an octopus appendage and will serve as a model for underwater rescue operations in difficult underwater environments. Italian scientists plan to complete a soft, full body robotic octopus with eight arms by January 2013 with no rigid structure.
But it’s really Carmel Majidi, principal investigator at the Carnegie Mellon Soft Machine Lab who brings soft robotics into focus. At his lab, he and fellow researchers focus on elastic and multifunctional materials. These types of materials, Majidi and others believe, will be the building blocks for a new generation of devices and robots composed entirely of soft material and fluids.
“Soft robotics is in its nascent stages, but it has plenty of potential,” said Majidi. “There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of developing fundamental technologies, but my long-term vision is that many robots and machines will eventually require few if any rigid parts.”
"The ways in which soft robots differ from their hard-bodied forebears—from their elasticity to the fact that they move very differently from the traditional machines based on joints and bearings—give robotics researchers entirely new avenues to explore, many inspired by nature" — Carmel Majidi, Soft Machines Lab, Carnegie Mellon.
For his part, Majidi focuses on the soft electronics and sensors side of soft robotics, but believes there’s a fundamental limitation with robotics today and believes the future of robotics does not lie in rigid materials, but in soft and elastic materials that are as stretchable as the human body.
“Robotics today is made up of materials that are literally thousands of times more rigid than the soft tissue in our body and this is fine for what robots are designed and used for today,” said Majidi. “But the rigidity of materials and machines used in current robotics definitely limit their compatibility with humans.”
This is in stark contrast to the rigid, mobile semi-humanoid called SAMI being developed as a prototype at The CRIIF, a robotics technology non profit lab in Paris. SAMI, which will debut at Future en Seine in June 2012, is actually a comical-looking robotic head that will be put on an omnidirectional mobile platform (no arms and legs, thus semi-humanoid) intended to interact with humans or function in an industrial environment. The first applications of SAMI could be applied in Gerontechnology, industrial or the military – applying either arms/legs/torso to the modular platform as needed.
SAMI was conceived to be a low cost, yet innovative prototype that could be moved into the market quickly. It was built knowing it could be modified as budget, need and new technology advances. According to Rodolphe Hasslevander, Director, the CRIIF, in robotics, and especially in the humanoid field, researchers want to develop new, very advanced technologies before anything moves into the marketplace.
“The problem today is the market is not ready for a lot of this advanced technology,” said Hasselvander. “I want to reach the market with industrial technologies to ensure feasibility and usability but won’t be too expensive to be adopted.”
According to Hasselvander, down the road you could control SAMI with voice commands or tactile interface to perform tasks, dial up Skype, monitor an elderly person’s activities or help push someone in a wheelchair to the cafeteria or activity center.
Currently there are many humanoid robots that don’t use soft robotics technologies such as SAMI, but to make them more human-friendly and dramatically improve their ability to interact with humans, Majidi believes the industry should introduce soft robot technologies like artificial skin.
According to Majidi, one motivation for soft robotics is to create exoskeletons that can assist with motion or rehabilitation for people that have suffered injury or stroke, and like any human-machine interface, these exoskeletons must be safe, comfortable and not interfere with our natural mobility.
Majidi is currently focusing on making electronics and sensors that are intrinsically soft and stretchable. In a recent project, he and his team created an elastic curvature sensor that has numerous applications including joint angle monitoring in soft active orthotics, a stretchable keyboard interface for wearable computing, contact detection in soft autonomous robots and curvature sensing for folding programmable matter.
Artificial skin (or electronic skin) has been a sub-field of robotics for decades and is being applied to assistive medical devices as well as virtual reality and humanoid robotics. “Soft is important not just for safety and comfort, soft is also important for functionality,” adds Majidi. “With soft robotics, we can start building devices that are more multifunctional, more versatile. Remember, electronics and machines that are stretchable won’t break when you wear them and move your joints.”