Robots based on soft materials are becoming increasingly popular due to their ability to replicate the appearance, movements, and abilities of humans and animals. However, the production of these robots on a large scale has been a challenge. The high cost of their components or the complex fabrication process has hindered their scalability. Researchers at the University of Coimbra in Portugal have recently developed a new soft robotic hand that addresses these issues, making it more affordable and easier to fabricate.
The design of the soft robotic hand, as introduced in Cyborg and Bionic Systems, combines soft actuators with an exoskeleton. Both components can be produced using scalable techniques, making the fabrication process simpler and less costly. This innovative approach opens up new possibilities in the field of robotics.
Most traditional robots are made of rigid materials. However, researchers have observed that animals have both hard parts (skeletons) and soft parts (muscles). Inspired by nature, the researchers aimed to create a robotic hand that incorporates soft materials, enabling it to be safer and interact more effectively with humans and animals in various environments. Soft robotic systems are less likely to cause damage or injuries if they collide with their surroundings.
The primary objective of the researchers was to develop a soft robotic hand that is safe, affordable, and suitable for large-scale production. By leveraging finite element analysis, they optimized the design before physically fabricating the hand, reducing prototyping costs. Regular 3D printing was effectively used to print components in soft materials and molds in rigid materials. This approach significantly reduces the time-consuming and resource-intensive design-fabrication procedures typically associated with soft robotics.
The Functionality of the Soft Robotic Hand
The soft robotic hand consists of five soft actuators, each corresponding to a finger, and an exoskeleton that promotes finger bendability. An ON-OFF controller maintains the specified finger bending angles, enabling the hand to grip objects of various shapes, weights, and dimensions. The researchers have carried out simulations and experiments to evaluate its performance, with highly promising initial results. The robotic hand successfully grasped numerous objects with different characteristics.
Potential Implications and Future Research
The integrated design-fabrication system developed by the researchers has the potential to increase the accessibility of soft robotic hands. This breakthrough reduces costs, eliminates time-consuming processes, and minimizes resource requirements. The soft robotic hand could be used by academic teams and individual roboticists to test new artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and computational tools aimed at enhancing robot abilities.
Additionally, the design of the soft robotic hand opens up new possibilities for the low-cost fabrication of humanoid robots that can assist humans in their everyday activities. This advancement could revolutionize the field of robotics and bring us closer to a future where robots seamlessly coexist with humans.
Continued Research and Advancements
The team of researchers intends to focus their future studies on improving the fabrication of soft actuators and sensors. By enhancing the accessibility of soft robots to a wider audience, they aim to make these advanced technologies more readily available. Furthermore, the researchers are actively exploring the application of artificial intelligence in controlling soft robots. This ongoing research will push the boundaries of what soft robots can achieve and pave the way for further breakthroughs in the field of robotics.
The development of an affordable and accessible soft robotic hand represents a significant milestone in the field of robotics. This innovative design enables the replication of human-like movements and abilities, making robots safer and more versatile. By utilizing scalable techniques and leveraging advanced technologies, the researchers have overcome the limitations associated with the production of soft robots on a large scale. This breakthrough not only fuels further research and innovation but also brings us one step closer to a future where robots seamlessly integrate into our daily lives.