How Soft Robotics Draws Inspiration from Nature

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Dr Alex Murphy | Research Communications Officer

Date: 21 March 2024

The precision and power of robots has revolutionised science and industry, but recent advances into soft robotics are expanding the field in creative new directions. Taking inspiration from the movements of octopuses, insects and snakes, soft robots suggest a future in which adaptive, dextrous machines will enhance risky tasks from surgery to extraterrestrial exploration by mimicking the fluidity of natural organisms.

Hard vs soft robotics

Traditional robots evoke images of steel and bolts, in a factory production line or finely-tuned mechanism. The advantages of machinery for precision engineering at scale are obvious, and its strength and reliability led to industrial revolution and unprecedented social change. The flipside of this is an inflexibility which can harm humans interacting with robots, complicate repairs, and limit versatility.

Softness should be assessed from the perspective of the receiving object, and soft robots are generally made up of malleable, deformable materials such as fluids, pneumatic tubes, gels and elastomers which redistribute pressure. They move and adapt to their environments in novel ways, like a tumbling pneumatic frame which rolls strangely but could be economically transported into space, or a delicate tendril to reduce tissue damage during intricate keyhole surgery. The possibilities for medicine are particularly striking, from vibrant prosthetics to surgical instruments and wearable tech like joint supports which taper off during recovery. Soft robots exert force and motion in unfamiliar, sometimes uncanny ways, and observers may find them unsettling, but their advantages far outweigh any teething discomfort.

The merits of a softer approach

Soft robotics can reduce the dangers of human-robot interaction (HRI), facilitating a world in which approachable machines are integrated into every corner of life. The risks of accidents and malfunction remain, but soft materials absorb impacts and reduce the prospect of serious injury. Employers could protect their workers by incorporating such machinery into their processes, improving health and safety. There is also an emotional dimension, as the approachable qualities of soft robots nudge users to bond with the tools. This comfort should not give way to complacency, but it could be a significant asset for intimate or personal applications such as caregiving or play.

These advantages stem from the design and material aspects of soft robotics, which have progressed in recent years. A report from Elvesys summarises typical manufacturing processes. The pressurised elastomer tubes of Pneumatic Networks actuators allow for cheap, mouldable structures which bend and yield, and may be the most developed technology in this space. Other approaches use chemicals which react to electrical voltage or rely on photosensitivity or combustion to reshape materials. Fabrication involves casting such flexible elastomers and combining them into layers, ready for a multitude of applications.

Change is challenging

On the negative side, soft robots can be trickier to repair. Substituting a broken motor is likely to be much more straightforward than replacing a ruptured pneumatic tube, for example. And while soft materials are less expensive than metalwork and sensors, the need for supporting hardware to be separate from the machine reduces their autonomy.

Flexible robots are already picking fruit and being inserted into industrial processes, but their advantages will not be fully harnessed with piecemeal additions to established practices. More holistic reimaginings of how this technology can revolutionise production lines are the next frontier, challenging as this can be. The sustainability considerations of new materials and processes should also be carefully weighed from the earliest stages.

Reductions in power and the challenges of integration are a price worth paying. So is the eeriness of soft robots’ fluid, alien motions, when we consider transformative applications like search and rescue, artificial body parts, or strength-enhancing exoskeletons.

Soft robotics challenges our preconceptions about robots, opening up exciting new opportunities for sensitive, adaptable, safe innovations that can be genuinely transformative for many fields. These robots can be simpler, and cheaper, with natural inspirations that can make them less intimidating (if a little creepy). The fusion of hard and soft robotics will allow the advantages of both to be harnessed, and advances in this space are to be welcomed.

Trilateral Research continues to support responsible, progressive engagement with technology throughout its work. You can read about our research here.

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