Physicists have discovered a new way to coat soft robots in materials that allow them to move and function in a more purposeful way. The research, led by the UK’s University of Bath, is described today in Science Advances.
Authors of the study believe their breakthrough modelling on ‘active matter’ could mark a turning point in the design of robots. With further development of the concept, it may be possible to determine the shape, movement and behaviour of a soft solid not by its natural elasticity but by human-controlled activity on its surface.
The surface of an ordinary soft material always shrinks into a sphere. Think of the way water beads into droplets: the beading occurs because the surface of liquids and other soft material naturally contracts into the smallest surface area possible — i.e. a sphere. But active matter can be designed to work against this tendency. An example of this in action would be a rubber ball that’s wrapped in a layer of nano-robots, where the robots are programmed to work in unison to distort the ball into a new, pre-determined shape (say, a star).
It is hoped that active matter will lead to a new generation of machines whose function will come from the bottom up. So, instead of being governed by a central controller (the way today’s robotic arms are controlled in factories), these new machines would be made from many individual active units that cooperate to determine the machine’s movement and function. This is akin to the workings of our own biological tissues, such as the fibres in heart muscle.
Using this idea, scientists could design soft machines with arms made of flexible materials powered by robots embedded in their surface. They could also tailor the size and shape of drug delivery capsules, by coating the surface of nanoparticles in a responsive, active material.. This in turn could have a dramatic effect on how a drug interacts with cells in the body.
Work on active matter challenges the assumption that the energetic cost of the surface of a liquid or soft solid must always be positive because a certain amount of energy is always necessary to create a surface.
Dr Jack Binysh, study first author, said: “Active matter makes us look at the familiar rules of nature — rules like the fact that surface tension has to be positive — in a new light. Seeing what happens if we break these rules, and how we can harness the results, is an exciting place to be doing research.”
Corresponding author Dr Anton Souslov added: “This study is an important proof of concept and has many useful implications. For instance, future technology could produce soft robots that are far squishier and better at picking up and manipulating delicate materials.”
For the study, the researchers developed theory and simulations that described a 3D soft solid whose surface experiences active stresses. They found that these active stresses expand the surface of the material, pulling the solid underneath along with it, and causing a global shape change. The researchers found that the precise shape adopted by the solid could then be tailored by altering the elastic properties of the material.
In the next phase of this work — which has already begun — the researchers will apply this general principle to design specific robots, such as soft arms or self-swimming materials. They will also look at collective behaviour — for example, what happens when you have many active solids, all packed together.
This work was a collaboration between the Universities of Bath and Birmingham. It was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) through New Investigator Award no. EP/T000961/1.
A robot is a machine—especially one programmable by a computer—capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. A robot can be guided by an external control device, or the control may be embedded within. Robots may be constructed to evoke human form, but most robots are task-performing machines, designed with an emphasis on stark functionality, rather than expressive aesthetics.
Robots can be autonomous or semi-autonomous and range from humanoids such as Honda‘s Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO) and TOSY‘s TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot (TOPIO) to industrial robots, medical operating robots, patient assist robots, dog therapy robots, collectively programmed swarm robots, UAV drones such as General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, and even microscopic nano robots. By mimicking a lifelike appearance or automating movements, a robot may convey a sense of intelligence or thought of its own. Autonomous things are expected to proliferate in the future, with home robotics and the autonomous car as some of the main drivers.
The branch of technology that deals with the design, construction, operation, and application of robots, as well as computer systems for their control, sensory feedback, and information processing is robotics. These technologies deal with automated machines that can take the place of humans in dangerous environments or manufacturing processes, or resemble humans in appearance, behavior, or cognition. Many of today’s robots are inspired by nature contributing to the field of bio-inspired robotics. These robots have also created a newer branch of robotics: soft robotics.
From the time of ancient civilization, there have been many accounts of user-configurable automated devices and even automata resembling humans and other animals, designed primarily as entertainment. As mechanical techniques developed through the Industrial age, there appeared more practical applications such as automated machines, remote-control and wireless remote-control.
The term comes from a Slavic root, robot-, with meanings associated with labor. The word ‘robot’ was first used to denote a fictional humanoid in a 1920 Czech-language play R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti – Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek, though it was Karel’s brother Josef Čapek who was the word’s true inventor. Electronics evolved into the driving force of development with the advent of the first electronic autonomous robots created by William Grey Walter in Bristol, England in 1948, as well as Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine tools in the late 1940s by John T. Parsons and Frank L. Stulen.
The first modern digital and programmable robot was invented by George Devol in 1954 and spawned his seminal robotics company, Unimation. The first Unimate was sold to General Motors in 1961 where it lifted pieces of hot metal from die casting machines at the Inland Fisher Guide Plant in the West Trenton section of Ewing Township, New Jersey.
Robots have replaced humans in performing repetitive and dangerous tasks which humans prefer not to do, or are unable to do because of size limitations, or which take place in extreme environments such as outer space or the bottom of the sea. There are concerns about the increasing use of robots and their role in society. Robots are blamed for rising technological unemployment as they replace workers in increasing numbers of functions. The use of robots in military combat raises ethical concerns. The possibilities of robot autonomy and potential repercussions have been addressed in fiction and may be a realistic concern in the future.