It could be the future of robotics, but you probably haven’t even heard of it.Soft robots are exactly what they sound like: machines made of pliable material.
You may have seen soft robotics in action in the cinema recently, albeit a fictionalised version.
Disney’s Oscar-winning animated film Big Hero 6 is about a child and his soft robot, Baymax. The character has machinery on the inside but is inflatable on the outside.
Professor Chris Atkeson and his team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh helped the filmmakers ensure the movie was based on real technology.
“If you want to comb someone’s hair or brush their teeth you really want a robot that’s not going to hurt them, even if the computer crashes,” said Professor Atkeson.
“So for me, soft robotics is building computers that are inherently safe.”
You might think Baymax looks far-fetched, but tech like this is being developed right now.
Like traditional machines, soft robots are durable and relatively expendable.
But this technology takes inspiration from nature, using materials which have strength but will not necessarily damage what they come into contact with.
Dr Adam Stokes from the University of Edinburgh is a specialist in soft robotics and says they have many potential uses: “For things where you’re moving inside the body, where you have forceps for example and you’re moving tissues apart.”
Or somewhere where you’re using a machine in an unstable environment, a rubble-type environment after an earthquake in a disaster zone.
“By having a machine that is soft, that can gently move in the environment and interact with it safely, then you can remove some of the control elements that you would need for conventional hard robotics systems.”
Soft robots could also be used domestically: helping people with restricted movement to wash, eat or fetch things, for example.
But perhaps most importantly, they could change how we feel about interacting closely with machines.
“It’s about showing that robots aren’t necessarily these scary, hard machines,” says Dr Stokes.
“It’s moving robots into something where people will be interested in interacting with them and they’ll feel safe interacting with them.
“That will really help to move robotics into the mainstream.”
Later this month industry experts will gather at the world’s first Soft Robotics Week in Tuscany,