A group of researchers at Tufts University has launched a multidisciplinary initiative focused on the science and engineering of a new class of robots that are completely soft-bodied. These devices will make possible advances in such far flung arenas as medicine and space exploration.
According to Kaplan, the project will bring together biology, bioengineering and micro/nano fabrication. “Our overall goal is to develop systems and devices–soft-bodied robots–based on biological materials and on the adaptive mechanisms found in living cells, tissues and whole organisms,” he explains. These devices, he notes, will have direct applications in robotics, such as manufacturing, emergency search and retrieval, and repair and maintenance of equipment in space; in medical diagnosis and treatment, including endoscopy, remote surgery, and prostheses design; and in novel electronics such as soft circuits and power supplies.
“This represents a wonderfully rich and novel collaboration that takes a comprehensive ‘molecules to robots’ approach to the use of soft materials,” notes Linda M. Abriola, dean of the Tufts School of Engineering.
Work will focus on four primary areas: Control systems for soft-bodied robots, biomimetic and bionic materials, robot design and construction, and development and application of research-based platform technologies.
The new robots developed at Tufts will be continuously deformable and capable of collapsing and crumpling into small volumes. They will have capabilities that are not currently available in single machines including climbing textured surfaces and irregular objects, crawling along ropes and wires, or burrowing into complex confined spaces. “Soft-bodied robots could make many dangerous surgeries much safer and less painful,” Trimmer adds. “They could also be used by NASA to repair space stations by reaching places that astronauts can’t, perform more complicated tasks in industry that require flexibility of movement, help in hazardous environments like nuclear reactors and landmine detection, and squeeze more efficiently into tight spaces.”