NC State and Elon University researchers have made use of magnets and light to remotely control and reconfigure soft robots.
“We’re particularly excited about the reconfigurability,” remarks NC State profesor Joe Tracy.
“By engineering the properties of the material, we can control the soft robot’s movement remotely; we can get it to hold a given shape; we can then return the robot to its original shape or further modify its movement; and we can do this repeatedly.”
According to Tracy, all these functions could prove beneficial for biomedical and aerospace applications.
As part of their study, the researchers made use of soft robots composed of a polymer embedded with magnetic iron microparticles.
Under normal conditions, the material is relatively stiff and holds its shape.
The NC State-Elon team managed to subvert this by heating the material using LED light, thus helping make the polymer pliable.
Once pliable, the researchers demonstrated that they could control the shape of the robot remotely by applying a magnetic field.
After forming the desired shape, all the researchers had to do was remove the LED light, so that the robot could resume its original stiffness – effectively locking the shape in place.
By applying the light a second time and removing the magnetic field, the researchers could get the soft robots to return to their original shapes.
They could even apply the light again and manipulate the magnetic field to move the robots or get them to assume new shapes.
According to the researchers, the soft robots could be used to form ‘grabbers’ for lifting and transporting objects.
They could also be used as cantilevers, or folded into ‘flowers’ with petals that bend in different directions.
They have even developed a computational model to streamline the soft robot design process.
According to the researchers, the model allows them to fine-tune a robot’s shape, polymer thickness, the abundance of iron microparticles in the polymer – and the size and direction of the required magnetic field – before constructing a prototype to accomplish a specific task.
Image and content: Jessica A.-C. Liu/NC State