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Shape-changing, free-roaming soft robot created.

A new type of robot combines traditional and soft robotics, making it safe but sturdy. Once inflated, it can change shape and move without being attached to a source of energy or air.

Advances in soft robotics could someday allow robots to work alongside humans, helping them lift heavy objects or carrying them out of danger. As a step toward that future, Stanford University researchers have developed a new kind of soft robot that, by borrowing features from traditional robotics, is safe while still retaining the ability to move and change shape.

"A significant limitation of most soft robots is that they have to be attached to a bulky air compressor or plugged into a wall, which prevents them from moving," said Nathan Usevitch, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Stanford. "So, we wondered: What if we kept the same amount of air within the robot all the time?"

From that starting point, the researchers ended up with a human-scale soft robot that can change its shape, allowing it to grab and handle objects and roll in controllable directions. Their invention is described in a paper published March 18 in Science Robotics. "The casual description of this robot that I give to people is Baymax from the movie Big Hero 6 mixed with Transformers. In other words, a soft, human-safe robot mixed with robots that can dramatically change their shape," said Usevitch.