Can a robot pick up an egg or a baby cactus without damaging either? If it is a conventional ‘hard’ robot then the answer is almost certainly ‘no’. But if it is a ‘soft’ robot then the answer is definitely ‘yes’. They can pick ripe tomatoes from the plant, too. And play the piano with a light touch.
These are all examples used by Professor George Whitesides to illustrate the capability of soft robots during a lecture that I attended last week. The occasion was a scientific discussion meeting on Bio-inspiration of New Technologies which was held to celebrate 350 years to publishing the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. While I was in London listening live to Prof Whitesides and the other eight speakers, other people were listening via video links to Bangalore, India and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Professor Whitesides’ ingenious robots have ‘fingers’ built from the same soft rubber that is used in implants. They are constructed with a solid layer on one face that is curled around the object being picked up by the inflation of compartments on the reverse face. The inflation of the compartments on the reverse face cause the face to lengthen and the ‘finger’ bends to accommodate the change in length. Careful design of the inflated compartments allows the fingers to conform to the shape being picked up and the use of microfluidics ensures it is not damaged.
Professor Whiteside identified star fish as the source of inspiration for the design of his soft robots. I don’t feel that this short piece has done justice to his work. If, nevertheless, you feel inspired to work for him then there’s probably a queue and since he is professor at Harvard it is almost certainly a long one. His research group has also spun out a company, Soft Robotics Inc. so you could buy some soft robots and explore their capabilities…