Soft and bio-inspired: the robot revolution is soft

In 1958, during one of the experiments that made the history of psychology, the U.S. scientist Harry Harlow separated 60 baby monkeys from their mother to feed them with formula milk and study their behaviour. Noticing how the baby animals were drawn to pieces of cloth placed inside their cages to make them more comfortable, Harlow came up with the idea of an inanimate surrogate mother, made with a a wooden base covered with warm cloth. At the same time, he placed another identical yet bare-wire shape, which had a mechanism that could feed the monkeys. The small animals would always choose the “soft mother”, moving toward the other mother only for the time needed to be fed. The study thus revealed that the power of proximity has deep roots that go beyond the basic needs of all of us mammals.

It is therefore no coincidence that the growing need for robots in social activities, thus in close contact with human beings, is opening up new scenarios that aim to overcome their “rigid” skeletons in favour of “soft”, easily malleable robotic components. We are talking about Soft Robotics, an interdisciplinary branch of robotics that aims to create and develop robots built with soft and deformable materials, which can interact with human beings.

Soft Robots are almost always bio-inspired. What does this mean? That they are literally “inspired by nature” i.e. they replicate the biological mechanism of operation of specific living beings. An example? A natural-scale artificial caterpillar which harvests energy from green light and is controlled by spatially modulated laser beam. It can travel, just like its organic equivalent, on flat surfaces, climb slopes and transport loads up to ten times its mass.

Another field of development is that of soft grippers, soft gripping elements to grasp and handle objects of any type without damaging them. There are plenty of studies and developments in this respect. One above all: the 3D-printed robotic hand in silicone developed by researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which can handle objects as delicate as an egg and as thin as a DVD.

This new technology is not exempt from difficulties: soft robots are more difficult to control than rigid ones, and an acceptable understanding of their sensing has not been achieved yet. You could say that this is Year Zero, but many steps have been made and future prospects appear rich in potential.