Science for All | What are soft robots?

Science for All | What are soft robots?


The Hindu’s weekly Science for All newsletter explains all things Science, without the jargon.

The Hindu’s weekly Science for All newsletter explains all things Science, without the jargon.

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Soft robots are robots that are flexible and unlike their hard-edged cousins can be used to perform more delicate manoeuvres, such as reaching into difficult crevices or holding onto delicate objects.

They can be programmed to execute specific tasks.

Such robots are usually made of liquid crystal elastomers, which are polymers having viscosity and elasticity. The latest designs have them shaped like twisted ribbon. Placing the ribbon on a surface that is at least 55 degrees Celsius hotter than the ambient air causes the portion of the ribbon touching the surface to contract, while the portion of the ribbon exposed to the air does not. This induces a rolling motion in the ribbon and the warmer the surface, the faster it rolls.

Researchers have now developed soft robots that are capable of navigating complex environments, such as mazes, without input from humans or computer software.

Scientists have previously made such robots with smooth-sided rods, but that shape has a drawback, in that when it encounters an object, it simply spins in place. However newer robots with the twisted ribbon shapes are capable of negotiating these obstacles with no human or computer intervention.

Many soft robots are made to resemble living organisms, such as octopus, and are manufactured using 3-D printers. A drawback of soft robots derives from their advantage: The soft materials reduce their durability as well make them harder to control. Popular uses of these robots are in surgeries or making specialised exo-suits that can help in rehabilitating patients.

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