The robots of science fiction have long been familiar as creaky, metallic creations, moving in jerky and menacing steps, often inexorably towards world domination.  What is rarely, if ever, covered, is the concept of the somewhat-less-terrifying wobbly robot.

Soft, or bio-inspired, robots take their design cues from nature, applying the concepts of basic biology to mimic motion, strength and even healing capabilities of animals and plants.  Although a relatively new subject, the field of soft robotics has already shown huge potential, with proposed uses ranging from prosthetic aids and surgical devices, through to indestructible ‘rescue robots’ tasked with locating survivors after natural disasters.

Leading the way in the arena of soft robotics is Harvard’s Biodesign lab, which aims through its research to augment and restore human performance.  The robots designed at the Harvard lab are based around the concept of muscle contractions.  Imagine flexing your bicep: when energy is applied to a certain area of the muscle, it causes the muscle to shorten and contract, pulling the bones, and allowing your arm to move.  In much the same way, when energy is applied to the soft, silicone ‘actuator’, in this case through compressed air, one side of the silicone tube is pulled tight while the other remains relaxed, causing it to curl and move of its own accord, free of any hard mechanisms and wiring.

One way the Harvard Biodesign Lab is harnessing the power of the silicone actuators, is in the development of a prosthetic aid for recovering stroke patients.  In the developed world alone, approximately ten million stroke survivors experience some form of partial paralysis, including the loss of motor function of the hands.  By modifying a glove that can fit over the hand, the soft robots can flex and contract, guiding the patient’s hand and aiding in rehabilitation or performing normal daily activities.

In addition to advances in the field of rehabilitative medicine, soft robots are also being proposed as versatile recovery robots, designed to enter buildings and dangerous areas in the wake of disasters.  A more advanced robot, still using the same concept of compressed air ‘muscles’ to move itself around, comes in the form of a quadruped soft robot.  Shaped like a cross and made from silicone, the robot is capable of adopting different walking and crawling styles depending on which ‘muscles’ are filled with air, and can even climb over and under obstacles in its path.

Over in Italy however, the soft robots being developed by a team at the BioRobotics Institute in Pontedera have taken on a much more lifelike form.  In a video produced by Nature, Dr Matteo Cianchetti, Head of Lab of Soft Mechatronics for Biorobotics, explains how soft robots, built around the blueprint of boneless creatures such as the octopus, can twist and manipulate their way around obstacles that rigid robots just can’t contend with.  Without any rigid structures, the touch of the soft robots is incredibly gentle, as well as allowing for tiny, controlled movements to be carried out, making them ideal for use in medical surgery.

At the moment however, the field of soft robotics is still very much in its youth, and leaders in the area will be put to the test in the inaugural Robosoft Grand Challenge, to be held at the Research Centre on Sea Technologies and Marine Robotics in Livorno, Italy next month.  The competition, which takes place on the 29-30 April 2016, will see the robots judged in their terrestrial locomotion, dextrous manipulation of objects and even their underwater exploration capabilities.  Each individual race is designed to tackle a specific feature of the soft robots, scrutinising their resilience to various stresses including terrain and water; their body control when faced with obstacles to overcome; their ability to change shape in tricky situations; and even the lightness of their touch.  The aim of the challenge is to inspire and drive innovation in robotic technology that can set the robots free of the constraints of hard materials and wires.

Check back later to find out how they got on!

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