Stanford engineers create shape-changing, free-roaming soft robot | Isoperimetric Robot


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. So, the standford researchers wondered: What
if they 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
in Science Robotics. The simplest version of this squishy robot
is an inflated tube that runs through three small machines that pinch it into a triangle
shape. One machine holds the two ends of the tube
together; the other two drive along the tube, changing the overall shape of the robot by
moving its corners. The researchers call it an “isoperimetric
robot” because, although the shape changes dramatically, the total length of the edges
– and the amount of air inside – remains the same. The isoperimetric robot is a descendent of
three types of robots: soft robots, truss robots and collective robots. Soft robots are lightweight and compliant,
truss robots have geometric forms that can change shape and collective robots are small
robots that work together, making them particularly strong in the face of single-part failures. To make a more complex version of the robot,
the researchers simply attach several triangles together. By coordinating the movements of the different
motors, they can cause the robot to perform different behaviors, such as picking up a
ball by engulfing it on three sides or altering the robot’s center of mass to make it roll. The field of soft robotics is relatively young,
which means people are still figuring out the best applications for these new creations. Their safe-but-sturdy softness may make them
useful in homes and workplaces, where traditional robots could cause injury. Squishy robots are also appealing as tools
for disaster response. Other exciting possibilities for the isoperimetric
robot could lie off-planet. This robot could be really useful for space
exploration – especially because it can be transported in a small package and then
operates untethered after it inflates. On another planet, it could use its shape-changing
ability to traverse complicated environments, squeezing through tight spaces and spreading
over obstacles.

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