Robots are becoming more like people, in that they’re doing jobs that belonged to humans, they’re better able to mimic our abilities, and they’re making us ask big questions about how they’ll exist among us in the future. One difference remains clear however, robots still appear to be very much machines on the surface.


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Their mechanical structure and ridged materials and movement make them look and feel, obviously, robotic. Researchers usually focus on enhancing robotic capabilities, reducing their size, and increasingly their durability in order to widen their potential, but could that also happen as a result of making robots a softer?

Could softer textured, more flexibly structure robots mean better robots? That’s what some researchers are now exploring as a new trend builds in the robotics world: the creation of gentler, softer robots.

Credit: Z22

Aquatic-Inspired, Highly Adaptable
Like so many robots making headlines today, softer robots take much of their inspiration from the animal kingdom. One of the more notable examples is a RoboSoft Grand Challenge submission that’s based on an octopuse.

Many of the soft robot prototypes appear to have been designed for an aquatic environment, and this isn’t just a stylistic choice. The fluid, boneless movement, locomotive, and gripping capabilities of many invertebrate sea creatures can be applied to robots– effectively making them more adaptable when it comes to traversing surfaces, grabbing and carrying various objects, absorbing impact, and moving in a more natural, fluid manner.

Credit: LauMarghe

Softer, Gentler Robot Wars
The RoboSoft Grand Challenge will put a few new designs to the test for doing so. Ten contenders will see if their soft robots can cross a sand pit, operate a door handle, grab assorted objects, and safely navigate past fragile objects in a tank of water. Some have called the challenge a new, softer, gentler type of robot wars, but there’s more to this competition than fun and games.

The capabilities these robots demonstrate could set the ground for new robotic surgical tools, automatons that have more human-like touch and dexterity, and autonomous technology that can fold and flex back into shape no matter what a situation throws at it—or drops on it.

As the RoboSoft Grand Challenge is set to take place this April, will you be following the developments? Tell us your thoughts on this approach to robot design and function in the comments.

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