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The Squishy Future of Robotics

samzenpus posted about 5 months ago | from the bend-it-shape-it dept.

Robotics 36

An anonymous reader writes "The field of soft robotics is fast growing and may be the key to allowing robots and humans to work side-by-side. 'Roboticists are prejudiced toward rigid structures, for which algorithms can be inherited from the well-established factory robot industry. Soft robots solve two huge problems with current robots, however. They don't have to calculate their movements as precisely as hard robots, which rely on springs and joints, making them better for navigating uncontrolled environments like a house, disaster area, or hospital room. They're naturally "cage free," meaning they can work shoulder-to-shoulder with humans. If a soft robot tips over or malfunctions, the danger is on par with being attacked by a pillow. The robot is also less prone to hurt itself.'"

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Leaps and bounds (4, Interesting)

12WTF$ (979066) | about 5 months ago | (#46777133)

Yep, robotics is progressing in leaps and bounds...

Behold the BionicKangaroo

http://www.festo.com/cms/en_co... [festo.com]

Just look at it!

Re:Leaps and bounds (1)

LifesABeach (234436) | about 5 months ago | (#46777803)

I started thinking of the old joke about why women usually don't use Oder Eaters. After looking at the web page, it all seemed surreal.

attacked by a pillow (4, Insightful)

confused one (671304) | about 5 months ago | (#46777141)

Sure.... attacked by a 500 lb Kevlar reinforced pillow that can wrap around a body and sqeeze it until it pops like a zit.

OK, some of the search and rescue applications using the soft robots are a great idea; and, robots, in general, are useful tools. But a robot is a machine. Machines break. Computers malfunction. A small S&R robot has a small but measurable risk profile. If it's in a med-surgical application then it has the ability to do damage to the body of either the patient or the attending medical staff, should it malfunction. If it can perform industrial tasks, like lifting a car, then it can equally as well crush a person. One cannot say, "Look, it's soft and squishy" and ignore safety factors.

Re:attacked by a pillow (2)

Stuarticus (1205322) | about 5 months ago | (#46777323)

Shut up with your common sense and welcome your new cuddly overlords.

Re:attacked by a pillow (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46777389)

And the Earth could be sterilized by a gamma ray burst at any second. I don't think the article meant to imply that there is an absolutely zero level of risk associated with these robots.

Re:attacked by a pillow (2)

gl4ss (559668) | about 5 months ago | (#46777649)

And the Earth could be sterilized by a gamma ray burst at any second. I don't think the article meant to imply that there is an absolutely zero level of risk associated with these robots.

oh really? what about the pillow analogy then?

though.. maybe they just mean malfunction mode as in "goes limb". a python dropping from the tree dead can hurt you pretty badly though too, soft or not.

Re:attacked by a pillow (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46779789)

A pillow can be used to suffocate a person to death.

Re:attacked by a pillow (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46777415)

Machines break. Computers malfunction. A small S&R robot has a small but measurable risk profile. If it's in a med-surgical application then it has the ability to do damage to the body of either the patient or the attending medical staff, should it malfunction. If it can perform industrial tasks, like lifting a car, then it can equally as well crush a person.

Nothing is ever safe, but if you are going to look at the absolutes you might just curl up in a corner and die right now.
The thing you have to take into consideration is what we have now. Humans also break, they also malfunction. A human surgeon also makes mistakes. People tend to not handle extreme situations that well.
The situation isn't that we can choose between having a human lift something heave to drag out a wounded after a building has collapsed. The situation is that we have to bring in machinery or the person dies. Today the the machinery could cause injury to otherwise healthy person if it malfunctions. If we can reduce the damage by adding padding that is a plus.

Re:attacked by a pillow (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46777717)

I'd rather trust a robot designed by a competent engineering team, than a human. Machines are predictable, and they can be designed to fail safely.

Hell Yeah (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46777971)

That was my mistake with my first girlfriend.

Oops, didn't mean to let that slip out, sorry slashdudes.

Better analogy: my cat who weighs about 20 lbs and waddles. He still has claws and teeth, and if things get really bad, he can crap like there's no tomorrow.

Re:attacked by a pillow (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46778341)

You should take a look at how safety is achieved in industrial machines. Even tho they might have enough strength rip human apart or pummel your skull in, they are absolutely safe, especially in case of malfunction. Only way to get hurt by a properly designed industrial automation machine is if you first manually bypass safety features(that absolves machine manufacturer of liability).

Re:attacked by a pillow (1)

confused one (671304) | about 4 months ago | (#46782821)

Funny you should mention that. I happen to be an engineer working in a manufacturing plant. Absolutely safe... No. As safe as we can make them, yes. We put all kinds of safeties like light curtains into the systems, to protect human workers. The summary above says they are meant to work "cage free" and the worst that could happen is... Well, they're working with small scale and underestimating the damage potential. That's all I'm saying.

Re:attacked by a pillow (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46779903)

I did not expect the Spanish Inquisition!

Re:attacked by a pillow (1)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about 4 months ago | (#46781605)

Ah the posting of someone who doesn't understand what soft robotics* is, and then modded insightful by others who didn't RTFA.

Hint: it's not a hard robot in a silicone sleeve.

Re:attacked by a pillow (1)

confused one (671304) | about 4 months ago | (#46782881)

I do... I've seen large industrial machines that use what are essentially soft robotics techniques and soft manipulators. The examples given in the article are all small and target search and rescue apps. That's great. I've seen a 4 story structure lifted on airbags and moved across a smooth surface by an automated system. Point was you can't assume it scales to industrial scales and assume everything will be soft and harmless. When the "soft" robotics moves up to the larger scales, as it is just as likely to do as it is to move to smaller scales, you can't discount the energy involved. I hate to see someone make the assumption "They're soft so they're harmless" and let that idea get promoted as gospel regardless of scale.

Re:attacked by a pillow (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46781753)

Sure.... attacked by a 500 lb Kevlar reinforced pillow that can wrap around a body and sqeeze it until it pops like a zit.

I don't get it. The article only seemed to show smaller robots which would be incapable of something like this. Do Slashdotters just assume everyone else is an idiot so they can feel better about themselves?

Rule 34 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46777167)

If a soft robot tips over or malfunctions, the danger is on par with being attacked by a pillow.

So, you mean, kind of sexy under the right circumstances?

Re:Rule 34 (2)

rioki (1328185) | about 5 months ago | (#46777499)

Yea... the entire article had me thinking of, "look at all the applications", in Bed.

Humans and robots working together. (3, Funny)

mjwx (966435) | about 5 months ago | (#46777183)

Coming to your office in the near future:

Frank: Steve, did you fart?
Steve: uh... no, must of been RB24-VQ11
Frank: Jesus VQ, that's rancid.

Re:Humans and robots working together. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46779747)

I don't know about farting, but I give it about 5 minutes before one of these is introduced to a human anus. For research.

This was predicted decades ago... (1)

Mal-2 (675116) | about 5 months ago | (#46777225)

What started out as an experiment in Progressive Rock turned into Jazz-Rock Fusion. If soft machines are the future, then the future is Out-Bloody-Rageous. [youtube.com]

Those squishy robots will be the doom of us all! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46777237)

The doom of us all!

Festo has been doing this for years. (5, Interesting)

Animats (122034) | about 5 months ago | (#46777325)

Every year, Festo, the German robotics company, builds an exotic new kind of robot as a demo. Many of their robots have been "soft".

  • The Festo Aqua Penguin [youtube.com] which, like a penguin, "flies" in water.
  • The Festo Air Jelly [youtube.com] , a flying jellyfish. Lighter than air.
  • The Festo Air Penguin [youtube.com] , another lighter than air flyer, with flapping wings and good control.
  • The Festo Bionic Handling Assistant [youtube.com] , an air-driven flexible hand. Looks a lot like what these academics are trying to do, but it came out in 2010 and works fine.
  • The Festo Smart Bird [youtube.com] , which looks like a bird and flies like a bird, very well.

Here's their whole list of experimental projects [festo.com] . They've been doing "soft robots" since 2007. Others were doing "soft robots" before that, but the control usually wasn't that good. Festo builds soft robots with smooth, precise control. Festo's specialty is precise control of pneumatic systems, so they know how to do this.

Re:Festo has been doing this for years. (3, Interesting)

rioki (1328185) | about 5 months ago | (#46777511)

The reason why Festo's robots are so different from other robots, is because Festo is not a robotics company, but a producer of pneumatic components. Many of their creations are along the lines, if all you got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Many of them are really interesting, because they are so radically different, simply because they approach the problems differently.

Re:Festo has been doing this for years. (1)

Animats (122034) | about 4 months ago | (#46781831)

Right. Traditional pneumatics is rather dumb - most of the time it's on/off, with air cylinders pushed up against hard limit stops. Positional control of pneumatic cylinders works fine, but it takes proportional valves, feedback sensors, and a fast control system. Until recently, industrial systems tended not to get that fancy.

I was interested in using pneumatics for running robots back in the 1990s, but the available proportional valves back then were big and expensive. One useful model of muscles is two opposed springs, and a double-ended pneumatic cylinder can do just that. You can change both position and stiffness, separately. You can simulate a spring, and recover energy. Someone did that at CWRU a decade ago, but the mechanics were clunky. Festo does that elegantly with their new kangaroo. Very nice mechanical engineering.

Shadow Robotics has a nice pneumatic robot hand. Shadow has been doing pneumatic flexible actuators for many years, but now they have good controllability.

First of all, it's a question of power (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46777385)

It's not a question of a robot being soft. It's a question of

1) having force feedback and not exerting too much force,
2) avoiding high energy collisions.

Ergo, the robot should be light weigt, low power, and equipped with force sensors. There're robots like this on the market. And these robots are already certified safe to be used without a cage. Look for Universal Robots, for instance.

The problem with such robots is very low payload. Typically, it's 3-5 kg max. It may be helpful in the kitchen, but not much elsewhere.

On the other hand, equip a pillow with a 8 kW motor, and you have 10 horses kicking.

Drunken Luck (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46777429)

The robot is also less prone to hurt itself.

Apparently drunken luck applies to squishy robots and humans alike.

Cherry 2000 (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46777551)

It's 2014 dammit! Still waiting for my Cherry 2000...

Re:Cherry 2000 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46778629)

What about my electric Barbarella?

Anthropomorphizing already... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46777577)

Anthropomorphizing already are we?

Last line in the summary. Robots don't get hurt. They get damaged.

Re:Anthropomorphizing already... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46778361)

That's racist, sensor IO-s feel pain too

YOU fAIL IT (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46777823)

can really ask of The last nighi2t of

computation required (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46779965)

TFA made the argument that soft robotics are more like human physiology than hard robotics. I am not so sure that is the case. It contrasted the precise calculations required by robots like Atlas to pick up an object with the single command required by Harvard's squishy starfish, and argued that the human hand is closer to the soft robot than the hard one. But the fact that animals don't have a noticeable hesitation when they need to figure out how to pick something up or to know where to step isn't because they aren't depending on those calculations but rather because the brain is just very good and doing those calculations very fast, using an advanced feedback signal processor known as the cerebellum.

Delicate, tender and moist... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#46780265)

...is the future of robotics, I would say. But then, I'm not a native speaker; perhaps "squishy" comprises all of that.

Hard Robots (1)

digitalPhant0m (1424687) | about 4 months ago | (#46780585)

make for good porn.

OtherLab's super-impressive inflatable robots (1)

HizookRobotics (1722346) | about 4 months ago | (#46780619)

They left off the most compelling example: Otherlab's inflatable arms. http://www.hizook.com/blog/201... [hizook.com]
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