Soft robotics: Everything you need to know

Thinking about robotics likely brings to mind images of large, heavy, industrial machinery. And while such imagery is in line with what robotics includes, there is an entire subfield of robotics that you might be less familiar with: soft robotics.

In contrast to steel and aluminum-based robots, soft robots are made using soft, elastic and flexible materials that more closely resemble the tissues of living organisms. However, the differences between rigid and soft robots go beyond physical texture and the materials used. Soft robotics, for example, have incredible potential in the field of medicine, and for helping scientists unravel the mysteries of the biological world.

Soft robotics design

Soft robots are made using a liquid crystal elastomer that is infused with carbon nanoparticles, thermal actuators, and silicon-based light sensors. These components allow the soft robots to adapt and perform operations in their ever-changing environments. In some cases, soft robotic design includes pressure adaptive materials that can change shape based on fluid movement and hydrostatic pressure.

The design of soft robotics is largely inspired by the sensory capabilities found within the human body, including a human’s ability to sense movement, pressure, touch and temperature. The types of sensors typically used in rigid robotics make embedding them in soft robotics challenging. However, recent advancements in sensors are reducing this challenge. These sensors are made using an organic, ionic, liquid-based conductive ink that can be 3D printed directly into the elastomeric pseudo tissues used in the production of soft robots.

Soft robotics applications

The world can benefit a great deal from soft robotics. While some applications may still be years or even decades away, certain industries are already applying the technology and experiencing its advantages. Here are a few interesting applications for soft robotics:

Healthcare & medicine

In healthcare, soft robotics technology can be used to create flexible exosuits that expedite the wearer’s recovery. Additionally, the strength and flexibility provided by these suits could help seniors maintain a higher level of mobility for longer, enabling them to be more independent much later in life.

Due to its potentially shape-changing properties, soft robotics could also play a transformative role in the biomedical space, as they may allow medical devices to navigate the human body more easily and less intrusively. Soft robotics could be used to assist during surgeries, to diagnose illness, or to deliver medication to a targeted area. It could also potentially be used to create more lifelike prosthetics, artificial organs for transplant, and lifelike devices that can be used to help train the next generation of medical professionals.

Search & rescue

Much in the same way that a shape-changing device could more easily navigate the human body, a robot with similar properties could aid search and rescue personnel in locating survivors in collapsed buildings, mines or caves.

Infrastructure inspection & maintenance

Lightweight robots that can scale large buildings can be tasked with inspecting the integrity of infrastructure, identifying weakness, and performing maintenance.

Space exploration

A team at NASA is even researching the viability of using soft robotics to explore other celestial bodies. In terms of potential applications, the sky quite literally seems to be the limit with soft robotics.

Soft robotics considerations

The technology driving the rise of soft robotics no longer exists in the realm of science fiction, but in reality. Having said that, the adoption of this tech does require consideration of the following:

  • First, soft robotics are ideal for working alongside humans. Since these robots are made of soft, elastomeric resins, a worker is far less likely to be injured working next to a soft robot than they would next to a conventional industrial robot. Injuries due to accidents would decrease, as would the associated drop in productivity.
  • Second, soft robotics can be applied where conventional robotics simply don’t work. Since soft robotics contain sensors that can gauge the density and tactile strength of objects, they can safely grab and manipulate items of differing densities without requiring arduous reprogramming for each item. This means that soft robotics can be deployed to process and package perishable goods, consumer goods, pick e-commerce orders for fulfillment and more.

Soft robotics may be new to you, but the reality is that the potential this technology holds will make it one of the driving forces in the economy for years to come. As the field of robotics continues to quickly grow and a wider range of industries adopts robotic technology, there will be a demand for robotics engineers and technicians to build, operate, repair and maintain these technologies. If you’re interested in kickstarting an exciting career in robotics, consider George Brown College’s Robotics Technician training program.

Photograph licensed from iStock