Wonderful Engineering

Interns Develop Soft Robots For NASA’s Next Moon Mission

What comes to your mind when you think of robots? We bet it is something that resembles humans, it hard, and crafted from steel, right? But the next generation of robots is going to be agile and soft squidgy, also known as soft robots. These soft robots are being developed as we write this for carrying out exploration of disaster zones and for performing surgery. The latest task for these soft robots is to explore space.

Two interns, Chuck Sullivan and Jack Fitzpatrick, at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia are busy creating soft robotic actuators that might find their application in the next moon mission. Fitzpatrick said, ‘When you actuate the soft robot, it changes how you use the material properties. A piece of rubber going from flat to the shape of a finger, it changes the material into something else.’

Soft robots offer many advantages; they are flexible and possess the capability of adapting to new environments. Furthermore, they can be repaired and replaced quickly and without entailing a high cost. Just like living organisms, the soft robots are also capable of expanding their range of motion for squeezing their way through tight openings or for making their way around obstacles.

Sullivan and Fitzpatrick are still testing their design but have obtained nothing but good results so far. The duo is developing the soft actuators by 3D printing a mold and then pouring it into silicone or other flexible substance. NASA said in a statement, ‘By design, the actuator has chambers, or air bladders, that expand and compress based on the amount of air in them. Currently, these two interns are operating the design through a series of tubes in the air bladders, allowing them to control the movement of the robot. By adjusting the amount of air in the chamber of the soft robotic actuator, the robot can flex and relax, just like a human muscle.’

The robots have four crucial properties; mobility, joining, levelling, and shaping. Mobility is how the robot traverses its environment, joining is the linking of these robots together, levelling refers to how the actuators can create a surface, and shaping is defined as how strength can be imparted to existing materials. Sullivan said, ‘We see these four things as the crux of the problem. Once we can accomplish those in individual unit tests, we would like to figure out ways to combine them, so maybe we combine mobility and joining.’

The interning duo will be given feedback on their work from robotic experts and researchers from all over the world. This will help them to incorporate the given advice for continuing the research and prototyping during summer.