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Friday, June 17, 2022

Considering Softer Robotics

Favorite space, robotics with appropriate scale. 

Soft Robotics is About More than Building Robots  By Cari Shane

Commissioned by CACM Staff  June 16, 2022

Some see soft robots helping declining populations of pollinators do their jobs, or sifting through wreckage in the wake of a building collapse, or even performing simple, practical tasks in tight spaces; others see them traveling the oceans or traversing the insides of our bodies to scope out medical red flags.

Some, like Robert Katzschmann, an assistant professor of robotics at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, see the need to tread a little more lightly and a lot more quietly in our world, which is one of the reasons he's building soft robots: to help us better integrate with nature.

A study by Research and Markets predicts the market for soft robotics will reach $2.16 billion by 2024 as the versatility of soft robots takes center stage. Metallic robots made of rigid metals and plastics, that use rotating motors or fast spin propellers, are designed and are constructed with speed and precision in mind; that makes them key drivers in industrial settings and in assembly line work. However, says Katzschmann, "There are no rotating motors in nature. Nature uses muscles to smoothly wiggle, walk or run. Muscles combined with soft materials make for very adaptive and safe environments that you can use in your everyday life."

Soft robots are made from materials that can approximate biological functions. In fact, the researchers in Katzschmann's lab—chemists, material scientists, biologists, physicists, computer scientists, data scientists, and roboticists—are finding ways to make machines from live, contracting muscles. "If you want to really have robots be ubiquitous, be among us, they have to be made physically of something that at least mechanically matches us," he says. If you can do that, he says, you can build a "future that's more sustainable, and [one] that's also preserving nature, without all this extra noise that comes from traditional machines."

Katzschmann's new generation of robots have silent muscles that directly transform electrical energy into contractions. "Imagine a submarine that has a normal propeller at its back, but it actually swims by moving its formable tail from side to side, just like a real fish," says Katzschmann, who is particularly concerned about the impact loud machine noise has on marine life. Whales, he says, can hardly communicate with each other over the noises from ships, ocean liners, boats, and submarines that contaminate the oceans.

"As we know, a human that is constantly exposed to noise can become depressed and even develop tinnitus. So now try to imagine living in a world without all this noise by machines. How would your day-to-day life look in a busy city, without these rattling noises? Instead of this noise, the world would be filled with natural and human noises primarily, and if you rethink the way of making transportation systems or even robotic automation systems, this could actually improve the sound of our worlds and at the same time, preserve nature."

A decade ago, Katzschmann found himself caught between roboticists, whom he says understand how to put together models they can control, and material scientists, who understand how to combine new materials. This led him to a realization: "If I use the right materials and put them into robots, I can actually have real muscles in the robots," he says.

Though still in the early stages, Katzschmann is taking cardiac cells and skeletal muscle cells from lab rats and mice, growing and even genetically modifying them so they will contract in reaction to light or electricity. .... ' 

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