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Scientists Say We Need Softer Robots

  • George Putic

Today’s robots are mostly hard, rigid machines, with sharp edges and forceful movements. But a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University says robots, especially those that interact with people, should be softer and therefore safer.

Many of today’s robots resemble people — some only in parts while some are almost life-like. Others look like animals, from insects and fish to snakes and birds.

But most of them are hard-surfaced machines, designed to do heavy-duty work.

Soft robots, such as this cuddly baby seal called Paro used to comfort the elderly in Japanese assisted living homes, are rare. But researchers at Carnegie Mellon University say we need more of them.

“Ten years ago, people were doing robotics, people were building robots, but people were more interested in building robots using rigid materials and strong materials and powerful machines,” explains Yong-Lea Park of Carnegie Mellon University.

Since many robots have to interact with people, Yong-Lea Park and his colleagues say making robots softer will make them safer for humans.

Robotics professor Chris Atkeson says a robot’s rigid structure could be covered with inflatable segments that could change shape as needed.

He says researchers were inspired by Baymax, a robot in the popular Disney movie Big Hero 6.

“I have heard from many, many people about the positive impact the movie Big Hero 6 has had on kids, and it has had it in two ways. One, it makes them like robots, and, two, it makes them want to be scientists and engineers," he said.

Assistant mechanical engineering professor Carmel Majidi says wearable electronics are another field where researchers have to come up with new materials for friendly robots.

“So a big goal for us is to develop materials that are simultaneously compatible with that kind of more mature established microelectronic hardware,” said Majidi.

In Big Hero 6, Baymax serves as a health monitor.

That technology is advancing rapidly, but researchers say, in order to be marketable, it will have to be more pleasing to touch and have around.