I can’t sit here and promise you that the robot apocalypse isn’t coming, that the machines won’t eventually rise up and overthrow their makers. But what I can promise you is that not all of them will be able to punch you out. Because robots are going soft. Like, literally soft, controlled with liquid or air instead of traditional motors. It’s called soft robotics, naturally, and it’s hot at the moment.
Problem, though: Without the rigidity and powerful motors of your typical robot, soft robots have been weak. That is, until now. Researchers at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Harvard’s Wyss Institute have developed a new kind of soft robotic muscle inspired by origami and awesomeness. It’s essentially a bag filled with air, inside of which is an origami structure that functions as a skeleton. By pumping air in and out, the researchers can get the muscle to lift 1,000 times its own weight. By comparison, a more traditional robot arm like the super popular UR10, which weighs in at 64 pounds, can lift a third of its weight.
“That’s really amazing, if you think about it, you lift 1,000 times more than what you weigh,” says roboticist Daniela Rus of MIT CSAIL. “So we think that this will be really transformational for how we use soft robots in manufacturing, in homes, in everyday life.”
The secret is that skeleton. Without it, you could get a soft robotic muscle to contract, sure. Think Baymax from Big Hero 6, who can deflate and squeeze through windows. But in reality, a soft robot like that wouldn’t be very strong. The skeleton gives you both strength and the ability to start messing with how the muscle moves.
So for instance, if you want to do a straight-up lifting motion, an accordion-style skeleton might work best. But you might also 3-D print other origami shapes to execute other maneuvers. “Through those different patterns, we’re able to actuate rotational motions or twisting motions,” Rus says.
You could then also combine these different muscles as modules to form a more complicated robot, like the one at the top of this story. The fingers bend inward to grasp the tire, while the stem contracts upwards to lift.
The beauty of this kind of system is its literal and figurative flexibility. Just as you could combine different muscles, you could work with different materials for the skin. So you’d use silicone, for instance, to resist heat, but you could also use materials that dissolve in water to make a disposable aquatic robot.
Soft robots would get along with humans better, which means robots will collaborate with us, not outright steal our jobs. Sure, they’ll be extremely strong, but they’ll also be extremely sensitive. Robotic arms like the UR10 I mentioned earlier already stop if they make contact with a human, and expect the softies to do the same. So the soft robots of the near future will combine brawn and gentleness, making them even safer than “hard” devices. Like André the Giant, only with fewer sideburns.
The next step? Making a soft robotic elephant. Scaled down, of course. “I like the elephant trunk because it’s such a sophisticated manipulation mechanism,” Rus says.
Let’s also get a robotic avatar of André the Giant while we’re at it. Maybe André riding an elephant. Yeah, there we go.