Soft Robotics Workshop:
Pixelache Festival 2016 – Helsinki (FIN). Organized and facilitated by Jonas Jørgensen and Frank Veenstra.
Soft robotics is a growing field of research wherein soft and compliant materials replace some or all of the traditional rigid parts conventionally used in robotics. The soft parts can engender properties such as elasticity, full body actuation and delicate object handling which can be beneficial for many different applications. Soft structures can also give robots a more biological appearance and are generally safer in robot human interactions. Materials such as silicone rubbers, for instance, allow movements to become more fluid and “naturally” expressive. A soft surface is also reminiscent of human and animal skin, which some researchers have claimed allows for a higher degree of identification with and feelings of empathy toward robots.
Soft robotics has become a field of enquiry for possible applications within areas as diverse as eldercare, prostheses, surgery, rescue operations, and wearable technology. More recently, soft robotics has also been gaining attention from architects, designers and artists. Certain challenges and difficulties, however, emanate when considering the manufacturing processes as well as the rapid prototyping solutions that can be used to produce soft morphologies.
In this workshop participants will get a broad introduction to the field of soft robotics. Through hands on practice-based inquiry participants will become acquainted with a number of selected methods for a simple production and control of soft morphologies.
The first day of the workshop will focus on the production of basic soft robotic parts and morphologies. An introduction will be given to different types of soft actuators and their usages as part of robot morphologies (PneuNets, tentacles, grippers etc.). A workflow is introduced wherein 3d computer modeling leads to 3d printed molds which are then used with a lost wax casting procedure to yield robot parts in EcoFlex silicone.
The second day focuses on the final assembly of the soft robots and different ways of controlling them with pneumatics. We will be using syringes as basic pumps and experimenting with using an Arduino microcontroller to control electrical pumps to generate more complex movement patterns (e.g. gait) and to have the robots respond interactively to sensor readings.
Excerpt from interview with Frank and Jonas by Laura Beloff:
Can you talk a bit about biology and soft robotics? Is there a connection?
Many soft robots are inspired by the biomechanics of soft animals such as cephalopods, caterpillars and worms. Soft parts of animals are also used as a source of inspiration for soft robotics. Muscle tissue is soft though hard when actuated, the soft viscoelastic nature of tendons allow for many efficient locomotive traits, the vasculature in mammals can expand and compress.
Biology already came up with solutions to very specific problems through evolution, which is shown in the use of soft structures. Applying soft structures in robotics can therefore tell us something about the nature of biological organisms. It can moreover be seen as a database from which we can mimic features that allow us to design our robot in a manner that is either efficient or has a “natural” aesthetic that some find pleasing.
Is there an artistic side or philosophical aspects to soft robotics?
Soft morphologies have a different expressivity of e.g. movements and haptics, they allow for other relations with their environment. They often exploit what is known as “morphological computation” – the idea of allocating some computational tasks usually done in silico to the mechanics of the body. This begs the question of where “thinking” actually takes place and in a way challenges the Cartesian division between the body and the brain. A soft body is tied to its milieu in novel ways and can therefore inhabit new ecological niches. Moreover, soft robots are not easily simulated or controlled; experimentation is required to perfect the designs, as in artistic practice.
Can you imagine what the future will bring in the field of soft robotics?
Imagine autonomous soft robots in the wild whose task is to clean up environmental pollution that decompose without environmental consequences.
Because of the biocompatibility of the materials used in soft robotics they can be combined with e.g. microbial fuel cells, to allow for energy self-sufficient robots. Even the logic in the circuitry could partly be replaced by chemical reactions. Steps are also taken to integrate soft sensors seamlessly with the morphology. Combing soft and rigid robots has a great promise, as some tasks, such as lifting or pushing, are hard to accomplish solely with soft bodies.
Soft robotics are curently being developed for many practical applications, researchers are for instance working on surgical soft robots to maneuver inside the body while others apply soft robots in eldercare for automated showers.
What is your personal interest in soft robotics – what do you work on now?
Jonas: I am interested in soft robotics as a media technology – in both a physical, computational, cultural, and aesthetic sense of the word medium. How and what does soft bodies mediate and how does their materiality come to matter in this? I am also interested in practice-based exploration of the specific aesthetics that soft robotic technology enables – how soft parts and bodies move, for instance, and are able to relate to other agents or organisms as part of an ecology.
Frank: I am interested in utilizing soft structures to engender something that approximates biological life. I would like to see if we could increase our understanding on why nature utilizes soft tissues and how soft structures can be utilized to make robots more efficient.
What should people expect from the workshop? And how should they be prepared?
Expect the freedom to create any robotic entity you like. Expect to gain insight into some basic principles of soft robotics and practical experience with the fabrication process and materials used to build soft robots.