The ability to physically grasp objects in our immediate environment is a trait that makes us distinctly human. From picking objects up for inspection to throwing with extreme accuracy, these kinds of actions differentiate us from other mammals. Our arms and hands are made up of complex muscle systems that work together with the brain to allow us to move flexibly enough to make these actions.
Our ability to grip objects is something we use incredibly frequently, and sometimes repetitively. In areas like manufacturing, there has been an introduction of ‘soft robotics’ which aims to focus on minimizing the need for humans to undertake certain types of dangerous or difficult manual labor.
What is soft robotics?
Soft robotics is a sub-field of robotics that describes the construction of robots that can mimic elastic human behaviors. This can include delicate grasping, twisting, bending, extending, compressing, and other similar movements.
Traditionally, robotic grips consisted of tough joints and extenders that could be dangerous if in contact with humans. Soft robotics attempts to ‘soften’ these robots, bringing more calculated and lifelike movements. Instead of applying brutal force to objects, the field of ‘soft robotics’ has been able to construct helpful gripping mechanisms that assist in settings such as elderly care and minimally-invasive surgery.
How can a soft actuator be used?
An ‘actuator’ is the soft robotics term for ‘mover’. It describes a system that allows the flexible movement of a robot - particularly concerning replicas of hands and other gripping mechanisms.
Actuators can be manipulated to perform the different types of human actions described above. Here is a selection of the settings when actuators can come in handy:
Wearable prosthetics. This is one of the major applications of soft actuators we might see in the near future. Current prosthetics cannot replicate the precise soft tissue and muscle action we see in arms, hands, and legs, but soft actuators could go a long way to getting us there. Recent attempts at replicating precise movement have been facilitated by impractical, bulky machinery. Any advances made by soft robotics would be lightweight, supple, and much more user-friendly.
Navigating small spaces. NASA has already shared its interest in soft robots to explore small spaces on other planets. Soft robots could be able to work their way into gaps between rocks or collect geological samples with more accuracy. On Earth, soft robots could help in earthquake (or other) disaster zones to access tight areas covered in rubble.
Manufacturing. A production line could be helped hugely by the presence of soft robots that are able to perform certain actions as precisely as humans. This could also speed up the process, as robots could work on construction 24/7.
Compact drones. Currently, drones are large and inflexible. They need open spaces to operate and cannot withstand contact with other surfaces. Soft robots in the form of miniature drones could be designed to fly inside small crevices such as the blades of a turbine engine to scan for damage.
Medicine. Soft actuators have already been shown to have the capacity to come into contact with living organisms without disturbing any functions. When designed to operate with low enough driving voltage, they can be explored as a potential solution for precise drug delivery or cell manipulation.
Jack Vale is a writer from Happy Writers, Co. in partnership with steel distributor FedSteel.