What is Soft Robotics?
Robotics is fast becoming a hot topic in the IT industry today. A sub field of this is soft-robotics. This field deals with robots that are non-rigid, or soft. Constructed using materials such as silicone, plastic, fabric, rubber, or springs, these soft robots are able to interact with their environment and are also able to perform deformations due to their softness and other features.
This was the center of topic at the Sri Lanka Robotics Meetup held yesterday (9th March) at the VirtusaPolaris Auditorium. These meetups are an IEEE Event organized by IEEE Robotics and Automation Society Sri Lanka Section Chapter in partnership with IEEE Sri Lanka Section.
Chandika Mendis, Executive Vice President – Technology and Global Head of Engineering at VirtusaPolaris was up to deliver the opening speech. He thanked all those attending for their participation and also introduced the guest speakers for the evening.
First up was Professor Shinichi Hirai
Prof. Hirai hailing from the Department of Robotics at Ritsumeikan University, Japan was up talking about Soft Robotics. The professor is also a member of IEEE, RJ, JME and SICE.
Prof. Hirai spoke about how the word “robot” can change according to your imagination. On screen, an example of robots is shown via characters from the Star Wars franchise, R2D2 and C3PO.
He went on to explain that robots can be good, or they can be evil. The word robot was introduced to the public by the Czech interwar writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), published in 1920. The origin of the word Robot derives from “robots” (Czech) which corresponds to “work” (English) or “arbeit” (German).
Prof. Hirai then spoke about robots in reality.
These take form of industrial robots that consist of an arm than can pick up objects, drones that are capable of flight, and also autonomous vehicles. Dr. Hiari went into great detail on the various types of robots used in the industry such as communication robots, delivery robots, robots used for security purposes such as drones etc. These drones are equipped with motion tracking sensors so it can identify and capture images of suspicious individuals or objects. All these have one thing in common: there is a minimal human activity and all processes are automated.
His definition of robot is an artificial system that percepts the states of environment and themselves by sensors, perform decision making by computers and act in the real world, by actuators. Morphology such as humanoids, cards or houses are acceptable. They can be autonomous remotely operated or wearable.
He then goes on to show the difference between robots and living creatures. For example, where robots are made of hard materials and precise mechanism, living creatures are made up of both hard and soft materials and a loose mechanism. For example, if you take out the muscles in a human arm, you’re left with a joint mechanism that is rather weak to perform any actions. It is not so with a robot.
The topic then morphed to soft robotics.
This is a relatively new field with its own set of trends, applications and challenges. Think of it as a research on novel functions brought by soft materials including soft sensors and actuators. He uses an example of a circular soft robot. By regulating voltage in the actuators in the robot, the shape of the robot can be changed or “deformed”, making it move in a direction. A more advanced version of this would be the spherical soft robot. Similar to the circular robot, by adjusting the actuators, the shape of the robot can be deformed to make it move in a direction. It can also be made to jump. Basically, by using deformations, a robot can be made to move and jump. You can check out more about robots jumping by body deformation here.
The next example by Prof. Hirai was the binding hand robot.
This is mainly used for grasping food dishes. This is a challenge for robots as they cannot grasp things well (literally). The grasping of a cup involves actuators and a foldable thread that would fit around the cup in order to lift it. Prof. Hirai went on to explain the logic and simulations used to overcome these challenges.
His next topic was about tactile sensors.
These include fabric tactile sensors, tactile image processing sensors and micro force sensors. A tactile sensor can show the pressure imposed upon its surface so that it can be measured. A fabric proximity sensor uses the area around it to detect the proximity of an object.
He then spoke about Electro conductive yarn. This is a yarn that conducts electricity used to manufacture carpets and other items that dissipate static electricity. Prof. Hirai session also spoke about elements such as Texture discrimination, Deformable Actuators, Micro pneumatic valves and he also spoke about fingertip modeling and the methodologies behind it. In addition, the concepts of fabrication and materials used to create soft robotics was also explained by Prof. Hirai where he said this can be done using 3d printing techniques. If you are interested in learning more about Prof. Hira’s work you can click here.
The next speaker was Professor Zhongkui Wang
Prof. Wang, from the Department of Robotics at Ritsumeikan University in Japan carried forward Prof. Hirai’s topic of soft robotics. He spoke about FE (Finite Element) Modeling and Biomedical applications of soft robotics.
This is essentially a numerical method for solving problems of engineering and mathematical physics. He then spoke about rheological objects. The main characteristic of rheological objects being that while Elastic can recover its shape and plastic cannot, rheological materials are partially recoverable. Food modeling is apparently a popular work with primary examples being Sushi modeling and Pizza modelling. He also spoke about things such as large deformation and rotation equations.
Biomedical applications such as vitreous surgery was his first topic
This surgery, also called a Vitrectomy, removes some or all of the vitreous humor from the eye. In the near future, this sort of surgery can be carried out by miniscule robots guided by magnetic forces. He then spoke about the evaluation of micro robot design, where they investigated the performance of micro robots with different designs and orientations.
The next example was the modelling and surgical simulation of a flatfoot. This effects people with diabetes or who are overweight or in some cases, both. When they reach older ages, they can get flatfoot and require surgery. The difficulties here are that the opinions vary from doctor to doctor, there’s a lack of flatfoot donors, and individual differences among patients. The solution was a surgical simulation using a computational model. He then went on to show how the modelling process was carried out from a CT image to figuring out ligaments and tissue.
In order to validate their simulation, they compared it against a real life scenario and their result. The problem was that there is no exact angle for surgery needed for flat foot, which is an osteotomy (the surgical cutting of a bone, especially to allow realignment) Rather it’s based on experience of the doctor. With the simulation, however, it can be experimented without worry. A surgery of this nature is not exactly something you can do multiple times. But with a simulation, it can be done multiple times with no harm done.
The second part of his presentation dealt with soft robotics.
The end goals is to a create robotic gripper for food handling rather than relying on human effort.
He then spoke about the recent advancements in soft grippers and the fabrication process of them. The pros and cons of the material used are high stretch ability and easy accessibility, whereas the cons are it being a rather complicated process to fabricate and also a disparity in each mould.
Prof. Wang then spoke about the Connex260, a compact multi-material 3D printing system capable of printing upto 14 kinds of material at the same time. The printing of these modules is subject to trial and error as all modules may not operate in the same way. The durability of the material too is another question.
He came back to his original topic of FE modeling and simulation.
The session got rather technical with mathematical equations thrown in along with graphs and analysis carried out in order to talk about the simulation results of the gripper.
Following this was a Q&A session moderated by Chandika Mendis
An interesting question asked was what implications there would be to other industries by the increase in the development of robotics? For example, automobile production is now largely done by robots. But if you take an industry such as food, as the food is fragile, robots that are capable of handling delicate items such as fruits and vegetables would have to be developed. Another area such as soft robotics that is gaining popularity as a new trend is robot-human interaction. AI is also included in this. Chandika also added the tropic of reconfigurable robots where the robot learns from the movements that it is subjected to.
The Q&A session then came to a close.
Tokens of appreciation were awarded to Prof. Professor Shinichi Hirai, Professor Zhongkui Wang and Chandika Mendis for their support and sharing of knowledge. With that, the Sri Lanka Robotics Meetup on Cutting Edge Robotics Researches in Japan came to a close.