Excerpt from "NSF announces awards for soft robotics research," posted on NSF News, December 20, 2018
"Configurable, strong, mobile robots could safely explore environments too hostile for humans, such as disaster zones and the deep ocean," said Dawn Tilbury, NSF's assistant director for Engineering. "They could allow unprecedented extension of human perception and action to places we've only dreamed about, opening up vast reservoirs of knowledge and potential for innovation."
From robots with programmable "skins" that allow them to alter their shapes to miniature robots made from muscle cells grown on an elastic filament, these NSF-funded fiscal year (FY) 2018 projects will tackle a variety of research challenges across a spectrum of applications.
One way to differentiate the soft robots in these new projects from more traditional rigid machines is that the soft robots are able to yield to environmental forces, which can cause large changes in their shapes. For example, the robots can contour to delicate surfaces instead of damaging them. Put another way, if you can tie it in a knot, it's a soft robot. Their yielding structures are preferable to rigid materials for physical interactions with people -- whether safely sharing space with a human coworker, or helping a person up out of a chair. However, rules for controlling the movement of soft robots are largely unknown. This is an area of research that requires the exploration of entirely new concepts and designs for what these devices are and can do.
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