Robot Softies

Robots currently fall into three categories. The most widely used are no-nonsense machines that we use but don’t feel very much affection for. A second category is the cuddly therapeutic machines that respond to touch and sound but don’t really do anything expect make us feel better. The third category is those cute-looking little humanoid machines that do things like play world-cup soccer. None of these quite cut it, though, when it comes to machines that we would really like to interact with.

What we need are machines which can do things for us, but which feel and look organic. This brings us into the current research area of soft robotics, which is covered by the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.

Calisti et al, have made a start on building a robotic octopus (1). At the current state it is a monopus with only one tentacle, but that tentacle can wave around, grip an object or make a good start at crawling. The tentacle is made of a silicone elastomer. It doesn’t have suckers, but doesn’t suck at gripping so don't get too close.

Running about is a good way to get over rough ground, which is why so many animals like us have legs. Running is a complex process and requires a sophisticated control strategy. Andrews et al have built a one legged planar robot that can change it’s leg length as a sinusoidal function of time (2). So it can stand, or hop like mad with different frequencies. Once it gets it’s other leg, it will be able to step over obstacles. Jumping hurdles may take a little longer.

The last bit of bioinspiration that I want to draw to your attention to, is the build of micro air vehicles by Shang et al (3) that have flapping wings. We have met these before in an earlier blog in connection with the experimental humming bird spybots built for the guys in dark grey suits and sunglasses. What is new here, though, is that the wings are modeled on those of insects and the progressive flexibility that is needed to simulate insect wing shape when flapped, is built in with the vein structure.

Can you picture the world tomorrow where we could have robot mosquitos about a centimeter in length chasing fast running robots who, if they jump into water to avoid the robomozzies, will get grabbed and consumed by an octibot? Will we see robot chimera? Say a robomozzie with tentacles?


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