Step Inside My Lab: Monolithic Systems

Charlotte Collins
10/9/2017 10:23:51 AM

Life of Riley by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

 

While "softness" may not be what comes to mind upon mention of a “robot,” soft robots offer both a flexibility and safety that rigid robots often can’t. Ph.D. student Gaurav Singh, who works in the Monolithic Systems Lab, describes soft robotics as a relatively new field compared to the traditional robotics that everyone knows of.

“The idea is to make robots which are safer around humans. The traditional robots that we know of are made up of metals, motors, and all these rigid, heavy components,” says Singh. “We want to make robots that are more similar to humans or animals.”

Advancements in the field of robotics suggest that the next generation of robots could be performing tasks within the home or assisting in rehabilitation services. Safe interaction with humans is a vital factor as robots are integrated into in our everyday life. 

“We’re using soft materials, so let’s say if something goes wrong, it doesn’t pose the same injury threat as something which is rigid, which is made of metal,” says Singh.

Sreeshankar Satheeshbabu, Singh’s colleague and fellow Ph.D. student, is currently engineering a structure that is shaped like a grid, but with diagonal intersections. He works with fiber-reinforced elastomeric enclosures, or FREEs, and a solver which goes through various algorithms to predict which arrangements will result in certain behaviors. The long term goal of his research is to develop a structure that will be modeled like a soft skin.

“I try and understand how these structures would behave if we were to arrange them in a particular pattern,” said Satheeshbabu. “The whole point of my research [is] trying to understand unique architecture of FREEs, which are the building blocks used to build such structures.”

Soft roboitcs have not only industriual but medial applications as well. The projects that Singh works on in the lab include a hand-grasping structure and a crutch which relieves pressure on the user’s wrist. The flexible nature of the robots not only increase safety of human interactions, but also allow robots to perform a wider variety of operations. Singh says the research done in soft robotics will eventually result in robots that help humans with everyday tasks.

“If we want to make assistive robots which can help you perform routine tasks like feeding yourself or doing chores around the house, for that we need robots which are soft,” says Singh. An assistive robot should “be adjustable and conformable to different tasks that it’s trying to perform.”

The structures don’t sacrifice strength for their flexibility. The structure Satheeshbabu is working on mimics the way human muscle fibers behave to bear weight. It can compress and expand like our muscles to conform to holding weight in different situations.
“If I were to hold something heavy, and if I want to hold it in place, the fibers in my biceps would be arranged more steeply,” said Satheeshbabu. “But on the other hand, if I was having a load on my hand, and I wanted to move, then the fibers on my muscles would be arranged more laterally. [The structure’s] inspiration is derived from muscles, found in nature.”

The focus of the field is on making softer, safer structures that can perform a range of operations and behave more like people or animals than rigid metal fixtures. The overarching goal is for the science to imitate life, or, as Singh says, creating systems that are “bio-inspired.” 

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