Can robots be soft?
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When imagining a robot, a hard-edged, boxy, humanoid figure may spring to mind. But that is about to change. CrowdScience presenter Alex Lathbridge is on a mission to meet the robots that bend the rules of conventionality. Inspired by how creatures like us have evolved to move, some roboticists are looking to nature to design the next generation of machines. And that means making them softer. But just how soft can a robot really be? Join Alex as he goes on a wild adventure to answer this question from listener Sarah. He begins his quest at the ‘Hello, Robot’ Exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany to define what a robot actually is. Amelie Klein, the exhibition curator, states anything can be a robot as long as three specific criteria are met (including a cute cuddly baby seal). With this in mind, Alex meets Professor Andrew Conn from the Bristol Robotics Lab who demonstrates how soft materials like rubber are perfect contenders for machine design as they are tough to break and - importantly for our listener’s question - bendy. Alex is then thrown into a world of robots that completely change his idea of what machines are. He is shown how conventionally ‘hard’ machines are being modified with touches of softness to totally upgrade what they can do, including flexible ‘muscles’ for robot skeletons and silicon-joined human-like hands at the Soft Robotics Lab run by Professor Robert Katzschmann at ETH Zurich. He is then introduced to robots that are completely soft. Based on natural structures like elephant trunks and slithering snakes, these designs give robots completely new functions, such as the ability to delicately pick fruit and assist with search and rescue operations after earthquakes. Finally, Alex is presented with the idea that, in the future, a robot could be made of materials that are so soft, no trace of machine would remain after its use... Presenter: Alex Lathbridge Producer: Julia Ravey (Image: RoBoa in action on a rooftop in Zurich. Credit: Julia Ravey)
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