As companies seek to automate certain activities while alleviating the need for constant human interaction, sophisticated robotic systems are becoming more commonplace. So-called “soft robots,” or mobile robotic systems utilizing soft materials, are a logical next step in the evolution of robotics. While most traditional robotic systems historically have been composed of rigid, metallic materials that are most commonly applied in a factory or in industrial settings, soft robots, in contrast, are more at home in an environment close to humans. They are more capable of performing human-like tasks that require tactile proficiency and quality movement patterns. Most “stiff” robotic systems require a great deal of control and physical space to operate as intended. In contrast, soft robots can move in a manner that closely resembles human motion, making them more useful and feasible in a wider variety of workplace settings. There are several advantages to integrating soft robots in today’s workplace.

Variety of Application

In contrast to traditional, more mechanized robotic systems, soft robots can be designed to change size and shape, with the ability to “enter confined and complex spaces, follow cables, ropes or wires, and climb branched three-dimensional structures.” Their versatility allows them to be used in a variety of applications previously unseen in robots, such as emergency rescue, bodily therapy, and enhanced assistive tasks. Soft robots can be fine-tuned for use in a variety of industries, from medical to environmental.

Safety and Cost-Effectiveness

Soft robots are also much safer to use than their mechanical, industrial counterparts. When many people think of robotics in the workplace, automotive factories or large assembly complexes come to mind. While soft robots essentially are descendants of these more traditional robotic technologies, they can be used in more confined settings that require a lighter touch. These robots often require much less complex maintenance and can be produced relatively inexpensively when compared with industrial or rigid robots of the past.

Environmental Friendliness

Soft robots are by their nature more environmentally friendly and sustainable than past robotic systems. In most cases, the variety of applications that soft robots are designed for are less industrial in nature and lend themselves to a cleaner and more natural environment. Many of the soft robots currently in development are used in settings that must be clean and safe for humans. Some applications, like those used in biotherapy and medical settings, require them to be biocompatible, which means they must be safe to use both outside and inside of the human body. As a result, the “oil, grease, and hydraulic” approach to robotics is largely left to the past—or in settings that require more raw power and less finesse.

Overlap with Human Factors and Ergonomics

Soft applications of robotic systems can certainly be automated using current technology, but they have also shown considerable strength and effectiveness when combined with human-centered systems. Ergonomic systems can be augmented by soft robotics, potentially leading to less worker fatigue and workplace injury. A particularly interesting application of soft robotics and related technologies is robotic exoskeletons that can be worn by workers as they perform their day-to-day tasks. These types of features help augment and assist people in their tasks and make technology integral to real-world problems.

Controlling Soft Robots

Because soft robots move in more complex and biologically specific ways, control of such robotics requires a subtler and more precise approach. One popular method of controlling robots that are composed of softer materials is pneumatic artificial muscles. These muscles were originally designed in the 1950s for orthotic applications, but they have gained popularity in robots that require pressure or movement in a restrained manner. Pneumatic artificial muscles have been used in medical devices, such as a cardiac compression device composed of nylon mesh embedded in an elastomeric tube. Other devices that require less restraint can be controlled by actuators or springs made of shape-memory alloy.

Looking Ahead

Soft robots have become more commonplace in a variety of settings due to their adaptability and precision. In some cases, these robots have become automated using new technologies, and overlap with artificial intelligence and machine learning is becoming increasingly more feasible. The greatest benefit soft robots offer is their ability to solve real, complex issues in a way that directly assists people with their day-to-day tasks. As automation becomes more widely utilized in other technologies, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to think of robots performing a variety of tasks based on a script or other programmatic input. As the workplace evolves, soft robotics will become more refined and applicable to a variety of settings and applications.