Squishy, Modular 'Soft Robots' are Gross But Impressively Flexible

Wednesday, 30 August 2017 - 8:52PM
Technology
Robotics
Wednesday, 30 August 2017 - 8:52PM
Squishy, Modular 'Soft Robots' are Gross But Impressively Flexible
YouTube/Reconfigurable Robotics Lab
When we think of robots, we all tend to imagine to ourselves hulking, impersonal, cold steel monstrosities with gears and levers and pistons, designed for hard labor. This is funny in a way, as more often than not, the spaces where robots will be most useful in our daily lives - away from the factories and warehouses of the world - their fine motor skills and adaptability will win over brute force.

As such, Jamie Paik, the director of the Reconfigurable Robotics Laboratory at the Swiss Institute of Technology, is looking for ways to make robot bodies useful for a wider variety of uses. Her strategy: make robots flexible and squishy, so they have a greater range of movement, and then make them disassemble like Lego pieces so that they can be rearranged for whatever use might best fit their owners.

The result is something that, in all fairness, looks a little creepy - parts of wriggling artificial flesh that look like giant, chopped up worms, all flailing around as directed by their programming. It's absolutely disgusting. It's also incredibly fascinating:



As Paik explains in the above video, these soft robots are designed in part to replicate muscles within the body - they contract in order to give movement, with a degree of flexibility afforded by their shape, as well as the fact that users can assemble them in whatever format best suits their needs. Soft robots are nothing new, but the idea of making tiny interconnecting pieces that allow for swift robot redesigns is something that could be revolutionary.

It's hard not to compare these with the reprogrammable HEXA robot spider, another piece of equipment that's designed for home use, and that seems a little creepy to some people. Where the HEXA's multi-limbed design is intended to suit a variety of purposes, it is limited by what can be achieved with a spidery form - as much as it might be reprogrammable for a variety of household tasks, its functionality is limited.

By comparison, these Reconfigurable Robots are perhaps initially less user friendly in that they require some imagination to put them together in a useful design, but there's a far greater array of uses that these robotic parts can be made to fit, based on programming and physical architecture, that comes from the flexibility and adaptability of the design.

In practical terms, these two robots, both intended for home use, represent the difference between a model boat and a Lego boat kit. Or an Apple iPad and an Android tablet - two pieces of electronics, both of which can be personalized with functions that fit the user's needs, but that differ in the level of control the user can have over their ultimate function.

As robots increasingly become a part of our daily lives, it's important that we have the opportunity to use them for disparate purposes that make our lives easier. The modular, flexible design of these soft robots will hopefully help us to have more control over how we use robots to fulfill our daily chores - so long as we can all collectively get over the fact that they look like wobbling mechanical tentacles that should be connected to some kind of Mecha-Cthulhu.
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