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Technology> Robotics Updated: 02 Nov 2018

Soft robots: The superheroes of tomorrow

Microscopic like a bacterium or soft like a jellyfish, the robots of the future will no longer be stiff emotionless metal monsters. This new generation of machines, biodegradable and capable of interacting with the human body, will help us conquer planets, repair the environment, or cure illnesses.

“Typically, when people think about robots, they think about science fiction films - Star wars, Star Trek or Terminator,” said Jonathan Rossiter – one of the biggest international experts in soft robotics and smart materials – during the presentation of the book the Next Step: Exponential life, in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Reality is, however, quite different. The robots of the future will look more like Baymax, the cushiony star of Big Hero 6.  It was precisely in the soft robotics laboratory of the Carnegie Mellon University where Don Hall drew inspiration to co-direct the Disney movie, which went on to win the 2015 best animated feature Oscar.

Disney´s Big Hero 6 official trailer

“The next generation of smart machines will come in a variety of shapes and sizes, just as living organisms do; it will change the way in which we live and will make our lives easier” underscores Rossiter, professor of robotics at the University of Bristol in the book published BBVA, as part of its OpenMind initiative, which is available for download in different electronic formats.

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Rossiter explains that new robots will become ubiquitous: they will be on our body, and inside it, they will be part of the clothes we wear and the food we eat. In other words, we will find robots in the most unexpected places.

Smart skins

Curing illnesses is one of the key goals of Rossiter’s research. Rossiter is working on designing a robotic skin capable of integrating on the human skin. These smart skins may mimic the color-changing abilities of the cephalopods or to translocate fluids like the teleost fishes and thereby regulate temperature. Soon, we will have smart bandages, capable of promoting healing, says Rossiter, who also is researching how to replace conventional clothing with some sort of second skin that adapts to the body.

Smart clothing to recover mobility

New technologies will not only be able to cure illnesses or help tissues regenerate, but also offer physical support, restoring mobility for the disabled or the elderly. Robotics experts are aiming at replacing, in the near future, wheel chairs with power pants or shirts. However, the development of this type of mobility-restoring clothes is limited by the weight of the mechanisms required to generate the power that would be needed. To overcome this difficulty, researches are developing increasingly lighter technologies.

Octobot is the world´s first soft-bodied robot - Lori Sanders/Harvard University

Robots inside our body

Robotics wants to go one step beyond wearables, developing devices that can be implanted into de body. This is what is known as biointegration. These technologies are expected to appear in the clinic over the next ten to fifteen years. In the future, these soft robotic replacement organs, capable of interacting with the body’s internal structures, will allow to restore its functional capabilities.

Biodegradable and Environmental Robots

We already have robots that are capable of cleaning polluted ecosystems. But, in Rossiter’s opinion, it is a paradox that the machines designed to clean the environment turn into environmentally harmful waste once they reach the end of their life cycle. For this reason, he is working on developing machines entirely built from completely biodegradable – even edible – materials. Thus, a person will be able to eat a minuscule robot to do a job of work in the body and then will be consumed by the body.