MIT announced that its team of scientists has developed a soft robotic arm for the first time that will allow it to understand its structure in three-dimensional space. It does this by using motion and position data from the robot arm itself to “perceive the skin”. Soft robots are made of soft materials that are similar to those found in organisms.
Soft robots are a research hotspot because they are safer, more adaptable, more resilient and bionic than conventional robots made of rigid materials. One of the challenges in making these soft robots is that the deformable design of soft robots must enable them to move in almost any direction at any time. Scientists say flexibility makes it difficult to train planning and control modules to drive automation.
The team developed a soft sensor system that covers the robot’s body and provides an “onto-body sensation”, which senses the movement and position of its body. The data collected by the sensor runs through a deep learning model that filters out noise and captures clear signals to estimate the robot’s 3D status. The researchers tested what looked like an elephant’s torso on a robotic arm that predicts its own position and automatically swings and stretches.
The sensors used by the team are made of off-the-shelf materials. One of the researchers’ future goals is to create artificial limbs that can manipulate environmental objects more dexterously. The long-term goal of soft robots is to fully integrate body sensors into the robot. A researcher has discovered a conductive material used to shield electromagnetic interference, which can be purchased in rolls anywhere, giving the team a breakthrough.
The material has pressure-resisting properties, and scientists realize that they can use it to make effective soft sensors. When the sensor deforms, its resistance is converted to a specific output, and the voltage is used as a motion-related signal. Eventually, the team turned to an origami called kirigami, cutting the rectangular strip of conductive silicon film into patterns to make it more flexible. They are then added to the previously designed soft robot body.