Design Engineering

New adaptive soft robot can move on its own


Automation sensors soft robotics

UHouston engineers have designed a new class of soft robots composed of ultrathin sensing, actuating electronics and temperature-sensitive artificial muscle.

soft robots university of houstonRobots have evolved significantly since the days of clunky, block-like machines. Today, robots are being designed with increased functionality and agility.

Engineers at the University of Houston have designed a new class of soft robot, with functionality and movement similar to an inchworm or caterpillar. The soft robot is composed of ultrathin sensing, actuating electronics and temperature-sensitive artificial muscle.

This new soft robot can slip through narrow crevices to search for survivors in the rubble left by an earthquake or bombing, explains Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering.

“They sense the change in environment and adapt to slip through,” he said.


Unlike traditional rigid robots, these soft robots are made of soft artificial muscle and ultrathin deformable sensors and actuators. Even traditional soft robots lack the ability to adapt to their environments or move on their own. But for their design, the researchers were inspired by nature.

“Many creatures, such as inchworms that have completely soft compliant bodies without any rigid components (e.g., bones), exhibit unprecedented abilities in adapting their shapes and morphologies and unique locomotion behaviors,” they wrote.

The team’s design  includes includes a liquid crystal elastomer, doped with carbon black nanoparticles to enhance thermal conductivity, as the artificial muscle, combined with ultrathin mesh shaped stretchable thermal actuators and silicon-based light sensors. The thermal actuators provide heat to activate the robot.

Measuring in at 28.6 millimeters in length, the prototype has the ability to be easily scaled up in size. According to Yu, the team is looking to do just that, make it much bigger and experiment with various types of sensors. While the prototype uses heat-sensitive sensors, it could employ smart materials activated by light or other cues, he said.

The team believes this soft robot has potential applications range from surgery and rehabilitation to search and rescue in natural disasters or on the battlefield. 


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