Hard cash for soft robotics

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The recent announcement of $26 million in funding from the National Science Foundation for soft robotics research is welcome news for the fluid-power community. NSF’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program plays a critical role in helping interdisciplinary teams push the frontiers of engineering research, and one area of key interest is compliant and configurable robots.

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Edible actuators—the future of fluid power?
Image courtesy of the Soft Robotics Toolkit

“The NSF EFRI program seeks transformative ideas that represent an opportunity for a significant shift in fundamental engineering knowledge with a strong potential for long term impact on national needs,” said Kim Stelson, director of the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power.
“Soft robotics has been identified as a high-growth emerging market for fluid power,” noted Stelson. CCEFP has long championed research into small, quiet, high-efficiency fluid-power systems for use in human-scale applications like wearable or implantable medical devices. “This level of government support for fluid-power research is long overdue and critical to the ongoing health of the fluid-power industry,” he added.

At least 13 teams with winning proposals will receive up to $2 million each, spread over four years—part of NSF’s ongoing commitment to create an engineering science of soft robotics. In fact, in just the last few months researchers at Clemson, Cornell, Washington State and Worcester Polytechnic, among others, garnered NSF awards of up to $400,000—for projects that involve modular elements, pliable sensors and tunably compliant composite materials for soft robots.

What’s the endgame? The bottom line is that soft robots could someday perform many tasks simply impossible with today’s conventional rigid robots, said Prof. Cecilia Laschi of the Sant’Anna University BioRobotics Institute in Pisa, Italy. Writing in the journal Science Robotics, she stated that among the benefits, compliant soft robots can embody “intelligence” like material memory, conform to surfaces or objects, absorb energy to maintain stability, and exhibit physical robustness and human-safe operation at potentially low cost.

Using soft materials and variable-stiffness technologies represents an emerging way to build new classes of robotic systems that will interact more effectively in unstructured environments and with humans, she said, and perhaps even morph, self-heal and biodegrade—opening new scenarios and applications for robotics.
Perhaps best of all, the next generation of would-be engineers, with few preconceived notions of what fluid power is and does, could reinvent pneumatics in ways we haven’t yet envisioned. For instance, students at The Haverford School of Pennsylvania, the high-school winner in this year’s Soft Robotics Toolkit competition, are literally sinking their teeth into soft robotics.

The team built air-actuated gummy candies as a proof-of-concept for soft robot applications within the human body. The main goal was to make edible actuators and improve the often-mundane, elementary school science class by providing an early introduction into the world of soft robotics and pneumatic control. But such gummy-bear devices might also someday aid in delivering vitamins, medicines and vaccines, and tasty actuators might be useful in oral surgery as a pleasant way of reaching in a child’s mouth, said the students. They’re certainly a far cry from the venerable bang-bang air cylinder.

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