Soft robots which don't just have soft exteriors but are also powered by fluid flowing through flexible channels have become a sufficiently popular research topic that they now have their own journal, Soft Robotics. In the first issue of that journal, out this month, MIT researchers report the first self-contained autonomous soft robot capable of rapid body motion: a "fish" that can execute an escape maneuver, convulsing its body to change direction in just a fraction of a second, or almost as quickly as a real fish can.
"We're excited about soft robots for a variety of reasons," says Daniela Rus, a professor of computer science and engineering, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and one of the researchers who designed and built the fish. "As robots penetrate the physical world and start interacting with people more and more, it's much easier to make robots safe if their bodies are so wonderfully soft that there's no danger if they whack you."
Another reason to study soft robots, Rus says, is that "with soft machines, the whole robotic planning problem changes." In most robotic motion-planning systems, avoiding collisions with the environment is the highest priority. That frequently leads to inefficient motion, because the robot has to settle for collision-free trajectories that it can find quickly.
With soft robots, collision poses little danger to either the robot or the environment. "In some cases, it is actually advantageous for these robots to bump into the environment, because they can use these points of contact as means of getting to the destination faster," Rus says.
But the new robotic fish was designed to explore yet a third advantage of soft robots: "The fact that the body deforms continuously gives these machines an infinite range of configurations, and this is not achievable with machines that are hinged," Rus says. The continuous curvature of the fish's body w
|Contact: Abby Abazorius|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology