Soft robots are the way of the future

A 3-D-printed robotic hand made out of silicone rubber does what its predecessors can’t – handle objects as delicate as an egg.
Soft-robotics explores alternative materials for robot design.
Soft-robotics explores alternative materials for robot design.

Researchers at the MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have overcome the complications that come with the traditional, rigid design of robotics by 3D-printing a robotic hand using silicone.

Rigid limbs and digits have made it impossible for robotic creations to grasp, hold and manipulate objects without dropping them. “Robots are often limited in what they can do because of how hard it is to interact with objects of different sizes and materials,” says CSAIL’s director Daniela Rus.

“Grasping is an important step in being able to do useful tasks; with this work we set out to develop both the soft hands and the supporting control and planning systems that make dynamic grasping possible."

CSAIL’s soft robot gripper is able to interact with objects such as a tennis ball, Rubik's cube and a Beanie Baby. It is also able to identify multiple objects by using special sensors that estimate the size and shape of the object.

“As a human, if you’re blindfolded and you pick something up, you can feel it and still understand what it is,” says PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann. “We want to develop a similar skill in robots — essentially, giving them ‘sight’ without them actually being able to see.”

The creation is part of a greater effort to explore the value of robotics made of unconventional materials such as silicone, paper, and fiber. The research team presented their findings at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in September.

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