Christoph Keplinger is challenging the current limitations of robots and rethinking them in terms of how they look, how they work and what they can do.
The most recent robots have impressive capabilities, but their bodies do not look much different from those of several decades ago. They have complex mechanical structures made out of rigid materials, like metal or traditional electric motors, and their movements are slow, mechanical and very clumsy.
In contrast to some robots, the human body makes extensive use of soft and deformable materials, such as muscles and skin. This isn’t only a question of aesthetics, but also of an ability to move and respond to unforeseen circumstances. It is the reason why we need a new generation of robots that are inspired by elegance, efficiency and the soft materials found in nature. A new branch of research, known as “soft robotics” is based on this idea and aims to “build almost any type of robot for almost any type of use”.
My research group and collaborators around the world are using soft components inspired by muscle and skin to build robots with agility and dexterity that comes closer and closer to the astonishing capabilities of the organisms found in nature.
Biological muscle is a true masterpiece of evolution. It can heal after damage and it’s tightly integrated with sensory neurons for feedback on motion and the environment. It can contract fast enough to power the high-speed wings of a hummingbird; it can grow strong enough to move an elephant; and it’s adaptable enough to be used in the extremely versatile arms of an octopus, an animal that can squeeze its entire body through tiny holes.
Keplinger’s research therefore aims to invent new ways of building artificial muscles that have practical applications and this is where so-called “actuators” play a key role. Actuators are for robots what muscles are for animals: key components of the body that enable movement and interaction with the outside world.
Keplinger and his team at the University of Colorado Boulder used this idea as a starting point for developing a new artificial muscle technology known as HASEL (hydraulically amplified self‐healing electrostatic actuators). HASELs are a new class of high-performance actuators that imitate muscle movements, which are to be used in next-generation robots and replicate the vast capabilities of biological systems.
HASELs are gentle enough to pick up a raspberry without damaging it. They can expand and contract like real muscles. And they can be operated faster than the real thing. They can also be scaled up to deliver large forces. They can be used to drive a robotic arm, and they can even self-sense their position. HASELs can be used for very precise movement, but they can also deliver very fluidic, muscle-like movement and bursts of power to shoot up a ball into the air.
The surprising thing is that HASEL muscles are based on very inexpensive, easily available materials. And, potentially, they pave the way for extraordinary applications in the biomedical field. Soft robotics will make it possible, for example, to create more natural prosthetics for people that have had amputations.
One day, we may even merge our bodies with robotic parts. I know that sounds very scary at first. But when I think about my grandparents and the way they become more dependent on others to perform simple everyday tasks such as using the restroom alone, they often feel like they’re becoming a burden. With soft robotics, we will be able to enhance and restore agility and dexterity, and thereby help older people maintain autonomy for longer parts of their lives. Maybe we can call that “robotics for anti-aging” or even a next stage of human evolution. Unlike their traditional rigid counterparts, soft life-like robots will safely operate near people and help us at home.