Octopuses offer an extreme engineering challenge:
They are almost infinitely flexible, entirely soft-bodied and incredibly intelligent. Are we vertebrate humans ever going to be able to build anything as deformable and complex as a real octopus?
Carmel Majidi, of the Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, explored this question in a recent paper in the journal Soft Robotics. “Like an octopus squeezing through a narrow opening,” he wrote, “a soft robot must adapt its shape and locomotion strategy for a broad range of tasks, obstacles and environmental conditions.” That’s not exactly C-3PO.
Our rigid robotics have come a long way since mid-20th-century Jetsonlike imaginings. Many are now capable of extremely nuanced tasks and coordinated efforts, including running like a cheetah. But they also hold us back from expanding far outside of specialized mechanical tasks—and into the everyday human world, such as in the operating room or even functioning as second skins. Carmel envisions a world where next-gen robots are “elastically soft and capable of safely interacting with humans or navigating through tightly constrained environments.”
And this softness is not just a plush covering. A purely soft robot is, like an octopus, almost entirely flexible. That means no traditional microprocessors or servomotors. As Carmel noted: like an octopus, “a soft robot must be elastically deformable and capable of maneuvering through confined spaces without inducing damaging internal pressures and stress concentrations.”
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Elastically deformable robots
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“The fact that it’s elastically deformable and as soft as natural skin means that it could be used for wearable computing or soft humanoid robots that are safe for physical interaction,” Majidi said. ...