Conventional robots operate in pre-programmed environments, enabling the execution of repetitive tasks at superhuman speed and accuracy, based on a design of interlinked rigid segments that are position controlled. A radically different approach is required to enable robots to safely interact with organic matter (which is inherently vulnerable and unpredictable) or to operate in human-inhabited environments. Robots should be soft and compliant, but designing, manufacturing, modelling and controlling them brings many scientific and technological challenges.
These challenges have recently begun to be addressed in the emerging research community of ‘soft robotics’. Currently identified applications for soft robotics include: robotic manipulators that can handle food or pick fruits, collaborative robots that can co-operatively perform complex handling tasks with humans, robot companions that assist humans in domestic environments, or wearable robotic suits for human augmentation and rehabilitation. Some groups have successfully demonstrated advances in soft robotics through control engineering solutions, others through compliant actuators, still others by compliant materials. However, the young field of soft robotics is characterised by a lack of an integrated design approach that impedes the rapid progress urgently needed by our society in terms of care, cure, agriculture and energy.
Our soft robotics programme aims to establish a leading soft robotics community in the Netherlands, that will establish an integrated design approach for soft robotic hardware, control and actuation, inspired by nature. Unlike conventional robots, humans and animals are soft and flexible, and adaptive. While in conventional robots’ components such as motors, sensors, beams and computer are stacked, in animals’ functionalities such sensing, control, and actuation are fully integrated, distributed, and robust (i.e., failure of parts does not lead to a non-functional system). In biology the nervous system is distributed over the entire body, and the ‘design’ of the biomechanical motion systems reduces the control demands for the nervous system. For this reason, we want to unravel the solutions found in nature, and use them as inspiration for the design of Soft Robots.
We will take the lead in realising the next generation of soft robotic systems through the integrated design of affordable flexible hardware, power-efficient lightweight actuators, and efficient and intuitive control. Our soft robotics program will integrate the following research themes: human-robot interaction; distributed control of compliant systems; modelling of soft robots and soft actuators; implementation of advanced materials (including meta- and multi-materials); embedded sensors; adhesive surfaces for soft gripping; (bio-inspired) design of soft robots leveraging the possibilities of multi-material additive manufacturing.