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Giving Robots a Soft Touch

NSF Award:

Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center  (Carnegie-Mellon University)

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Soft robots enjoy several significant advantages over traditional robots made from hard materials. Their inflatable design minimizes--if not eliminates--the risk of injury upon accidental contact. The robot's lightweight design also gives it greater flexibility along with gains in speed and agility.

Anticipating a day when robots will tend to humans in caretaking duties such as lifting, feeding, grooming and dressing, researchers with theĀ Quality of Life Technology Center, based at Carnegie Mellon University, developed a "soft robot arm" prototype. The center is run jointly with the University of Pittsburgh and is an NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC).

A major challenge robotics engineers face is how to make sure robots, with their metal grasping parts and tremendous strength, are safe for interaction with humans. Innovations such as the soft robot arm are at the vanguard of a class of technology aimed at helping older and disabled people to live more independently.

Siddharth Sanan, a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, spearheaded the soft robot arm project. The arm's doughnut-shaped, inflatable gripper was developed by Mike Ornstein, an undergraduate student. The inflatable device is the first of its kind and has garnered considerable media coverage as the result of an appearance at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

The lightweight joints are inexpensive to make and their membrane material keeps overall weight of the robotic structure low. The result is an inflatable, versatile and programmable arm that has taken a novel approach to making robots gentle enough to physically interact with humans.

Sensors embedded in the robot arm's inflatable gripper estimate the weight and size of an object and inflate the grabbing portion accordingly. As the system inflates, stiffness helps stabilize the arm's motion. The soft robot prototype can lift items that are 400 grams (0.8 pounds) and heavier.

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  • the soft arm robot gently interacts with humans
The soft robot arm gently interacts with humans.
Siddharth Sanan, QoLT

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