[SINGAPORE] Robots are getting softer.
Borrowing from nature, some machines now have arms that curl and grip like an octopus, others wriggle their way inside an airplane engine or forage underwater to create their own energy.
This is technology that challenges how we think of, and interact with, the robots of the not-too-distant future.
Robots are big business: by 2020, the industry will have more than doubled to US$188 billion, predicts IDC, a consultancy. But there’s still a lot that today’s models can’t do, partly because they are mostly made of rigid metal or plastic.
Softer, lighter and less reliant on external power, future robots could interact more safely and predictably with humans, go where humans can’t, and do some of the robotic jobs that other robots still can’t manage.
A recent academic conference in Singapore showcased the latest advances in soft robotics, highlighting how far they are moving away from what we see as traditional robots.
“The theme here,” says Nikolaus Correll of Colorado University, “is a departure from gears, joints and links.” One robot on display was made of origami paper; another resembled a rolling colostomy bag. They are more likely to move via muscles that expand and contract through heat or hydraulics than by electricity. Some combine sensing and movement into the same component – just as our fingertips react to touch without needing our brain to make a decision.
These ideas are already escaping from the lab.
Rolls-Royce, for example, is testing a snake-like robot that can worm its way inside an aircraft engine mounted on the wing, saving the days it can take to remove the engine, inspect it and put it back.
Of all the technologies Rolls-Royce is exploring to solve this bottleneck, “this is the killer one,” says Oliver Walker-Jones, head of communications.
The snake, says its creator, Arnau Garriga Casanovas, is made largely of pressurised silicone chambers, allowing the controller to propel and bend it through the engine with…