January 11, 2013

Soft robots "jam" to a solid beat

Doing “the robot” may become a little more fluid, thanks to the advancement by University of Chicago professors on what researchers are calling “soft robotics.”

Physics professor Heinrich Jaeger and his team at the Jaeger Lab, a part of the James Franck Institute which is dedicated to interdisciplinary research in science, have collaborated with researchers at Cornell University, University of North Carolina, and iRobot, a company that produces military and household robots, to develop a multipurpose robot in the shape of a blob, capable of bending and squeezing through holes.

Inspired by flexible animals like octopi, the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) initiated the project in order to develop a similarly flexible robotic system. The project was funded by DARPA and the National Science Foundation.

“Typical robots always have hard components,” Jaeger said. “They wanted to find out if it was possible to develop something that was a completely soft version of a robotic system that might move and change shape.”

The robot functions by using a “jamming” mechanism that allows materials to transition from a liquid-like state to a more rigid, solid state.

“It’s essentially an elastic membrane that is filled with granulate, or particles,” Jaeger explained. “In this type of approach, you don’t have an essentially predetermined function for components. It’s just a bag of stuff that conforms to shapes.”

In the process of developing soft robots, Jaeger’s lab also came up with a soft gripper that can be used to grasp objects and which uses the same jamming idea.

“We take a flexible bag, we fill it with grains, we press it against the object in its unjammed state, so it’s malleable and it’ll conform to arbitrary shapes,” Jaeger said. “Then we ‘jam’ it so it’s a rigid mold and it can pick objects up.”

Jaeger is currently building upon his research in order to understand what materials specifically to use in soft robots and soft grippers.

“Jamming works with almost any particle,” Jaeger said. “It’s a beautiful research problem. It involves essentially everything that science has a hard time with right now. It’s nonlinear, it’s far from equilibrium—all those wonderfully deep problems that we don’t know the answer to.”