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CHIPS Articles: NSF Investing in Soft Robotics Engineering Research

NSF Investing in Soft Robotics Engineering Research
By CHIPS Magazine - December 21, 2018
Imagine a robot that can self-configure to adapt to a changing environment—it’s a dynamic that researchers in the academic community are now working to achieve. To further this research, the National Science Foundation is awarding $20 million in 10 research projects to boost engineering in soft robotics.

Researchers are now working with robots with programmable "skins" that allow them to alter their shapes to miniature robots made from muscle cells grown on an elastic filament. These NSF-funded fiscal year 2018 projects will tackle a variety of research challenges across a spectrum of applications.

"Configurable, strong, mobile robots could safely explore environments too hostile for humans, such as disaster zones and the deep ocean," said Dawn Tilbury, NSF's assistant director for Engineering. "They could allow unprecedented extension of human perception and action to places we've only dreamed about, opening up vast reservoirs of knowledge and potential for innovation."

One way to distinguish the soft robots in these new projects from more traditional rigid machines is that the soft robots are able to yield to environmental forces, which can cause large changes in their shapes. For example, the robots are so supple they can contour to delicate surfaces.

NSF researchers said their soft structures are preferable to rigid materials for physical interactions with people—whether safely sharing space with a human coworker, or helping a person out of a chair. However, rules for controlling the movement of soft robots are largely unknown, according to the NSF. This is an area of research that requires the exploration of entirely new concepts and designs for what these devices are and can do.

"Soft robotics promise enormous advantages over traditional rigid robots, such as safer working environments and greater—literal—flexibility," Tilbury said. "Robots are permeating nearly every sector of our economy and society, changing how we work, live and play. Successfully adapting to this evolving landscape requires creating technology that adapts to us, humans. Meeting this future need requires re-engineering systems, from bottom to top and from nose to tail."

The new awards will focus on:

  • Designing soft systems for transferring power and information.
  • Creating new active soft materials and structures.
  • Creating representations that can model and predict large deformations of flexible structures.
  • Formulating new theories of movement and manipulation of flexible structures.

The new awards build upon a long history of NSF investments in fundamental robotics research.

Supported by the NSF Directorate for Engineering's Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program, in partnership with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, the awards signal a key investment in interdisciplinary research. The award amounts are about $2 million each over the course of four years.

The NSF EFRI Continuum, Compliant and Configurable Soft Robotics Engineering (C3 SoRo) investment will support 10 interdisciplinary teams:

From soft, wearable, assistive shoulder devices to robots with programmable “skins” that allow them to alter their shapes to miniature robots made from muscle cells grown on an elastic filament, these NSF-funded FY2018 projects will tackle a variety of research challenges across a spectrum of applications. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University
From soft, wearable, assistive shoulder devices to robots with programmable “skins” that allow them to alter their shapes to miniature robots made from muscle cells grown on an elastic filament, these NSF-funded FY2018 projects will tackle a variety of research challenges across a spectrum of applications. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University
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