The field of soft robotics has exploded over the past decade, as more researchers seek to realize the potential of these soft and flexible automata in a variety of fields, including search and rescue, exploration and medicine.
Despite all the excitement surrounding these new machines, Elliot Hawkes, professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara, wants to make soft robotics research more than just lightning in the pan. “Some new, fast-growing areas never take root, while others grow into flourishing disciplines,” said Hawkes.
To help ensure the sustainability of soft robotics research, Hawkes, whose own robots have sparked interest in their bioinspired and innovative locomotion and the new possibilities they present, offers an approach that advances the field. His perspective, written with colleagues Carmel Majidi of Carnegie Mellon University and Michael T. Tolley of UC San Diego, is published in the journal Scientific robotics.
“We were looking at the release data for soft robotics and noticed a phase of explosive growth over the past decade,” said Hawkes. “We have become curious about trends like this in new areas and how new areas are taking root.”
According to the group, the first decade of widespread soft robotics research “was characterized by defining, inspiring and exploring” as roboticists took to heart what it meant to create a soft robot, from material systems to new ways to navigate and interact. with the environment.
However, the researchers say that “for soft robotics to become a thriving and impactful field over the next decade, every study must make a significant contribution.” According to Hawkes, the long-term duration of a rapidly growing field often depends on the maturity of the initial exploratory research.
With this in mind, the group presents a three-level categorization system to be applied to future soft robotics work.
“The three-tier system categorizes studies within the field, not the field as a whole,” said Hawkes. “For example, there will be articles coming out this year that will be level 0, level 1 and level 2. The goal is to push as many studies from level 0 to levels 1 and 2.”
From baseline to overall contribution
“Soft for soft’s sake” could be used to characterize level 0 in the categorization system, as researchers have, over the past decade, rapidly and widely explored new materials and mechanisms that could fall under the notion of “robot.” software”. If these studies were necessary to define the field, the authors say, keeping research at this level puts soft robotics at risk of stagnation.
With the benefits of a solid foundation, current and future roboticists are now encouraged to identify areas for performance improvement and solutions to knowledge gaps in soft robotics – the hallmark of Level 1. These studies will advance the process. domain, the researchers said. , because new results could improve the technological performances of software systems.
However, they say, “as much as possible, we should strive to go beyond work that contributes only to our field.” Studies in the Level 2 category go beyond soft robotics to become applications in the wider field of engineering. Here, softness is more than an artificial constraint, according to the paper; rather, it “advances advanced technology and understanding in all disciplines” and can even replace conventional technologies that have been used for a long time.
One way to go beyond Level 0 is to train the next generation of roboticists, the researchers said. Consolidation of the best available knowledge provided by previous work will lead those who have just entered the field to “ask the right questions” while continuing their research.
“We hope that the categorization we propose will serve the field as a tool to help improve the contribution, ideally increasing the impact of soft robotics in the coming decade,” said Hawkes.