Soft robots slither into reality

Robots with soft bodies that don’t rely on any kind of skeletal structure are more durable, and require less power to move.

Looks like Gumby, walks like a gecko

Matthew Borgatti, lead scientist at Super-Releaser, explains the appeal of a soft robot 5:38

From R2D2 to the Canadarm, robots are usually designed as hard machines with lots of moving parts.

Some roboticists have a different vision: Robots with soft bodies that don’t rely on any kind of skeletal structure. That could result in robots that are more durable, and require less power to move.

Brooklyn-based designer Matthew Borgatti has released a proof-of-concept for his own soft robot, which he calls the “Glaucus” after a blue sea slug.

“It’s still a fairly young research field,” said Borgatti in an interview with CBC’s The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

Borgatti’s design for Super-Releaser is based around a silicone skin, and uses pneumatic pressure in order to move. Air pockets inside the skin inflate and deflate, letting the Glaucus “walk” like a gecko.

Dreams of mass production

Borgatti, who has a background in animatronics and special effects, hopes to make soft robots much easier to mass-produce. He models his designs on computer software, then prints moulds using commercially-available 3D printing technology. That allows him to create a series of prototypes relatively quickly.
The soft robot "Glaucus" can walk like a gecko. (Matthew Borgatti)

“Usually these prototypes are very expensive and require a lot of hand labour and time,” said Borgatti.

“I thought I could reduce the amount of labour it took to make a soft robot, and bring the technology fairly far, fairly fast if I was able to make them and play with them in really rapid-fire iterations.”

Open source model

Although Borgatti’s robot is unique, he’s not trying to keep it a secret. He makes his research and designs available online, encouraging others to make their own robots and share feedback.

“If I publish, more people learn about it, more people play with it,” said Borgatti. “It might move the field forward, and it might make the field valid for starting a profitable business based off of a specific product.”

That commercial product could have more to do with humans than robots. Borgatti thinks his technology could be used to help people living with injuries or disabilities.

“A one-size-fits-all, mass-produced cuff like a tennis band might be able to give them a little bit of robotic assistance without being incredibly expensive, or needing to be special-fit to them by a prostheticist or an orthopedic surgeon,” said Borgatti.

Not the only soft robot

Borgatti’sGlaucus isn’t the only soft robot on the scene.

Researchers at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences recently showed off a soft robot that can move under its own power, without a tether. Test videos show the robot crawling through water, snow, and even fire.

This week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled a soft, tentacle-like robotic arm. That technology could eventually be used to navigate tight spaces, assisting on assembly lines or in surgery.

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