Science for All | What are soft robots?

The Hindu’s weekly Science for All newsletter explains all about science, without the jargon.

The Hindu’s weekly Science for All newsletter explains all about science, without the jargon.

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Soft robots are robots that are flexible and, unlike their hard-edged cousins, can be used to perform more delicate maneuvers, such as reaching into difficult crevices or holding delicate objects.

They can be programmed to perform specific tasks.

Such robots are usually made of liquid crystal elastomers, which are polymers with viscosity and elasticity. The latest designs are in the form of a twisted ribbon. Placing the ribbon on a surface at least 55 degrees Celsius hotter than the surrounding air causes the portion of the ribbon that touches the surface to contract, while the portion of the ribbon exposed to the air does not. This causes a rolling motion in the ribbon and the hotter the surface, the faster it rolls.

Researchers have now developed soft robots that are able to navigate complex environments, such as mazes, without input from humans or computer software.

Scientists have previously created such robots with smooth-sided rods, but that shape has a downside, in that when it encounters an object, it just spins into place. However, newer robots with the twisted ribbon shapes are able to overcome these obstacles without human or computer intervention.

Many soft robots are made to resemble living organisms, such as octopus, and are manufactured using 3D printers. A disadvantage of soft robots stems from their advantage: the soft materials reduce their durability and also make them more difficult to control. Popular uses of these robots are in surgery or making specialized exo-suits that can help rehabilitate patients.

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