What is soft robotics?

July 9, 2024
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What exactly is soft robotics?

Soft robotics is an emerging field of robotics where robots are made of soft, flexible, and deformable materials, rather than the traditional hard, rigid components. 

Soft robotic systems typically contain soft materials like silicone, rubber, and textiles which allow them to move, grab, and move in a more natural, adaptable way. 

This extra flexibility and skill lets soft robots safely interact with humans and adapt to complex environments.

The components of soft robotic systems

To understand soft robotics, you first need to know what makes up these flexible machines. 

The major components are: 

  • Good old actuators (the prime movers). Rather than rigid motors, soft robots use inflatable chambers or bendable materials that can change shape on command. Therefore, these actuators are made of highly flexible materials like silicone rubber. Some soft robots may incorporate rigid components for specific functions.
  • Sensors that detect things like pressure, position, and shape. They provide feedback to help the robot control its movements and responses. Some soft robots have sensors distributed throughout their bodies so they can sense in many directions at once.
  • Controllers provide the brainpower. They interpret signals from the sensors and determine how to activate the actuators to achieve the desired movement or task. Controllers for soft robots tend to be software-based versus the hard circuit boards found in many traditional robots.
  • Finally, there’s the power supply. Many soft robots use pneumatic or hydraulic pumps to power inflatable actuators. Some also use small batteries to power electronic components. The idea is to have flexible, lightweight power sources that won't inhibit the robot's soft, pliable body.

Materials used in soft robotics

Some of the most common materials in soft robotics include:

  • Silicones like polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) are versatile, inert polymers that can be molded into almost any shape. PDMS is optically clear, flexible, and can conduct electricity when filled with carbon particles.
  • Elastomers are long, flexible polymer chains that can stretch and compress. Materials like latex, rubber, and neoprene are used to make soft pneumatic actuators that inflate and deflate. 
  • Hydrogels are water-swollen polymer networks that are more than 90% water. They are biocompatible, flexible, and can respond dynamically to environmental changes. Some hydrogels can also self-heal if torn or punctured.

Other options

New materials are opening more advanced soft robotics avenues:

  • Shape memory alloys can “remember” and return to their original shape, even after significant deformation. 
  • Liquid crystal elastomers change shape in response to heat. 
  • Conductive fabrics enable soft electronics and sensors. 
  • Biodegradable polymers are used for temporary medical devices that dissolve after use.

How soft robotics differ from traditional robotics

Let’s go over a short list of differences: 

  • Soft robots have flexible bodies made of malleable materials rather than rigid links and joints. This gives them more degrees of freedom and dexterity.
  • They rely on compliant actuators like pneumatic actuators, shape memory alloys, and dielectric elastomers rather than rigid electric motors. This makes them safer for human interaction.
  • They have distributed control systems spread throughout their soft bodies rather than concentrated in one area. This makes them more adaptable and resilient.
  • They have minimal rigid components which allows them to dynamically interact with and adapt to unstructured environments. This is useful for navigation, grasping, and manipulation in tight spaces.
  • They have innate compliance and passivity which enables safer physical human-robot interaction. Their soft, yielding bodies can deform and absorb impact forces.

Traditional industrial robots are usually seen in tasks like welding, painting, and assembly of manufactured components in structured environments. 

Soft robots, on the other hand, show potential for applications where human and environmental interaction is necessary, such as in healthcare, space exploration, and search and rescue.

But we’ll get into that in more detail below.

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Common soft robotics applications

Soft robotics has plenty of applications due to its flexibility, compliance, and biocompatibility.

The medical industry

Soft robots show huge promise for medical applications, especially surgery, prosthetics, and rehabilitation. 

Surgeons can use soft robotic tools to navigate tight spaces in the human body with greater dexterity and less risk of damage. Soft prosthetic limbs provide a more natural feel and range of motion. Soft exoskeletons and rehabilitation devices conform to the body, providing support and assistance with movement.

The manufacturing industry

Soft grippers are perfect for handling fragile objects like fruit, eggs, and glassware. They can grasp objects of various shapes and sizes without damaging them. Soft robots are also useful for tasks like polishing, buffing, and sanding in manufacturing, providing controllable force and dexterity.

The final frontier(s)

Soft robots can traverse rough terrain that traditional robots can’t. Their flexible bodies allow them to squish into tight spaces and reform their shape. This makes them well suited for search and rescue in collapsed buildings or exploration in space, the deep ocean, and other extreme environments. 

The biocompatibility of soft materials is also a huge advantage for robots that interact with living systems.

Advantages of soft robotics

The soft robotics field offers several benefits over traditional rigid robotics: 

  • They definitely don’t skip their yoga classes. Soft robots can bend, twist, and conform to their environment. They move gracefully like biological systems, allowing them to grab irregularly shaped objects or navigate tight spaces.
  • They can do things that “hard robots” can’t. They can grasp fragile objects without damaging them, manipulate soft materials, or apply gentle pressure to sensitive areas. This versatility makes soft robotics a good fit for jobs like minimally invasive surgery, rehabilitation, or flexible manufacturing.
  • Much safer when around squishy humans. Their pliable bodies absorb energy and conform upon impact, reducing the risk of injury or damage. Some soft robots are even designed with built-in sensing to react quickly if they detect contact. This is great for still-new areas like collaborative robotics. 

Challenges and limitations of soft robotics

While soft robots show promise, they still come with some significant hurdles to be overcome: 

Producing soft robots at scale is difficult and limits their commercial viability. The materials and components used in soft robotics can be quite expensive, especially if fabricated in small volumes.

Conventional rigid sensors and actuators don’t work well with soft materials. Researchers are developing flexible sensors and soft actuators, but integrating them into soft robotic systems in a scalable way still has a way to go. 

Soft robots can be hard to control precisely due to their flexibility and deformability. This makes them potentially unsafe for applications where high precision and reliability are required. 

Their soft, squishy materials are more prone to wear and damage over repeated use. Improving the durability and dependability of soft robots is key to opening up their use in more demanding environments.

Powering them can also be a major headache. Most soft robots today are either tethered to off-board power and control systems or have limited battery-powered operation. Developing compact yet high-energy power sources for untethered soft robots is difficult given their flexible, elastic components. New power solutions like flexible batteries, soft generators, and wireless power transfer are trying to help overcome this challenge and achieve fully soft, autonomous robots.

Summing up

In summary, soft robotics is an exciting new field that uses flexible materials like silicone rubbers and textiles to create compliant, adaptable robots

But are they ready for massive applications yet? No!

But researchers are making huge strides, and it won't be long (hopefully) before soft robots are a part of our everyday lives. 

Next steps 

Ready to reshape your manufacturing process? Look no further than RO1 by Standard Bots, the versatile six-axis robot arm designed by Standard Bots to meet the needs of businesses of all sizes. 

  • Affordable power-up: Get cutting-edge robotics at 50% of the cost of comparable models, making automation accessible for your business.
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  • Smarter than your average robot: RO1 uses advanced AI, similar to GPT-4 to constantly learn and improve at your specific tasks. And don't worry, it's easy to use — even if you're not a tech whiz, thanks to its no-code framework. 
  • Safety first: RO1 is designed to work safely alongside your team, using smart sensors and cameras to avoid any mishaps.

Let's chat! We're happy to schedule a 30-day risk-free demo so you can see RO1 in action and find out how it can help your business grow.

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