NSF Announces Research Awards to Advance Soft Robotics

Agency: 
National Science Foundation

From soft, wearable, assistive shoulder devices to robots with programmable “skins” that allow them to alter their shapes, to miniature robots made from muscle cells grown on an elastic filament, these NSF-funded FY2018 projects will tackle a variety of research challenges across a spectrum of applications. (Photo credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is investing $20 million in 10 research awards to push forward the frontiers of engineering research in soft robotics.

"Configurable, strong, mobile robots could safely explore environments too hostile for humans, such as disaster zones and the deep ocean," said Dawn Tilbury, NSF's assistant director for Engineering. "They could allow unprecedented extension of human perception and action to places we've only dreamed about, opening up vast reservoirs of knowledge and potential for innovation."

From robots with programmable "skins" that allow them to alter their shapes to miniature robots made from muscle cells grown on an elastic filament, these NSF-funded fiscal year (FY) 2018 projects will tackle a variety of research challenges across a spectrum of applications.

One way to differentiate the soft robots in these new projects from more traditional rigid machines is that the soft robots are able to yield to environmental forces, which can cause large changes in their shapes. For example, the robots can contour to delicate surfaces instead of damaging them. Put another way, if you can tie it in a knot, it's a soft robot. Their yielding structures are preferable to rigid materials for physical interactions with people —whether safely sharing space with a human coworker or helping a person out of a chair. However, rules for controlling the movement of soft robots are largely unknown. This is an area of research that requires the exploration of entirely new concepts and designs for what these devices are and can do.

"Soft robotics promises enormous advantages over traditional rigid robots, such as safer working environments and greater—literal—flexibility," Tilbury said. "Robots are permeating nearly every sector of our economy and society, changing how we work, live and play. Successfully adapting to this evolving landscape requires creating technology that adapts to us, humans. Meeting this future need requires reengineering systems, from bottom to top and from nose to tail."

The new awards will focus on:

  • Designing soft systems for transferring power and information
  • Creating new active soft materials and structures
  • Creating representations that can model and predict large deformations of flexible structures
  • Formulating new theories of movement and manipulation of flexible structures.

The awards build upon a long history of NSF investments in fundamental robotics research.

Supported by the NSF Directorate for Engineering's Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program, in partnership with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, the awards signal a key investment in interdisciplinary research. The award amounts are about $2 million each over the course of four years.

The NSF EFRI Continuum, Compliant and Configurable Soft Robotics Engineering (C3 SoRo) investment will support 10 interdisciplinary teams:

To view the original press release on the NSF website, visit https://nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=297532&org=NSF&from=news.

Category: 
T2 News
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Mid-Atlantic