The central character of the 2014 Walt Disney animated feature Big Hero 6 is a human assisting robot named Baymax. Of course, this robot looks like none other before it because it was made to be soft and approachable instead of metallic and sharp. This means that Baymax can console people who are in emotional pain or comfortably carry people who might be injured.
It was, indeed, a far departure from what we understand robots to be, these days, but a bright look into a possible future; if and when the technology becomes available.
Well, those days may soon be here. A new study from a team Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS)—with a specific expertise in 3D printing, mechanical engineering, and microfluidics—has showed that soft robotics may soon be a possible.
And it will change the way humans interact with machines.
The Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences—Robert Wood—and the Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biology Inspired Engineering—Jennifer A. Lewis—led the research along with a few crucial members of the Wyss Institute for Biologically inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Together, they theorize that soft robotics could dramatically revolutionize the way that humans and machines interact.
Of course, we are still a long ways off from having a Baymax robot, but the 3D printed “octobot” they made is still quite impressive.
Wood explains, “One longstanding vision for the field of soft robotics has been to create robots that are entirely soft, but the struggle has always been in replacing rigid components like batteries and electronic controls with analogous soft systems and then putting it all together. This research demonstrates that we can easily manufacture the key components of a simple, entirely soft robot, which lays the foundation for more complex designs.”
This research has been published in the scientific journal Nature.
Lewis further details, “Through our hybrid assembly approach, we were able to 3-D print each of the functional components required within the soft robot body, including the fuel storage, power, and actuation, in a rapid manner. The octobot is a simple embodiment designed to demonstrate our integrated design and additive fabrication strategy for embedding autonomous functionality.”
A major setback for these robots has long been fuel sources. This one, though, is powered by hydrogen peroxide: a simple chemical reaction that can be easily duplicated and expanded.