Soft-Bots May Be the Next Big Thing in Robotics
One of the odd things about the history of robotics is how so much of the effort has been focused on creating a robot to mimic the actions and perhaps one day, the thoughts of human beings.
This is strange because, well, while human beings might be smarter than anything else that lives here on planet Earth, we are by no means the best at doing certain physical things; like say running, or digging through a pile of debris to find someone trapped by the ravages of an earthquake.
George M. Whiteside’s of Harvard University, thinks this is all rather myopic and has been working on robotic designs that mimic creates that are far better at doing other things, like say, starfish at picking out tiny bits of material mixed in with a bunch of other stuff. Peter Reuell, staff writer for HarvardScience, writes that Whiteside, and his colleagues, might just be revolutionizing the way robotics in the future will be made.
Consider instead of a robot made of metal and plastic, one made of a synthetic material that can be filled with air when a part is needed. Fill the legs for example, and the robot gets up and walks around, or lower the air pressure inside and the robot can slim down enough to crawl through a tight space. In some ways, this might be reminiscent of the cyborg in the Terminator movies who was able to reduce himself to a puddle of what looked like liquid mercury.
This is not science fiction however and the robots that Whiteside and his colleagues are making are very real. There’s one that looks like a starfish, with lots of legs that moves fluidly underwater and is able to grasp a raw egg with a suction cup to move it around without breaking, or the squid that that can push itself around underwater by exhaling water at high pressure.
Such robots are intrinsically soft; instead of shells, there are canvases or plumes. And instead of brute force, they use agility and smoothness of movement; something that could be very useful in helping people in a disaster, for example, or maybe as surgical assistants, or to help watch kids at a day care center. The possibilities seem endless.
Thus far the only thing holding back the implementation of the soft-bots in the real world is the tender nature of their skin. Just like real such animals, they can be damaged quite easily which means they wouldn’t last long in a real world environment. Whiteside and his team are working on that though, and hope to solve that little problem in the very near future.