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Soft Robotics Get Better With Flexible Pump

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Soft Robotics Get Better With Flexible Pump

Scientists from Ecole Polytechnique Fedérale de Lausanne have developed a miniature pump that will help increase the effectiveness of autonomous soft robots, light-weight exoskeletons, and smart clothing. 

Most of our current soft robots are made from silicone, rubberer, and stretchable polymers. Unlike the harder or more traditional robots, soft robots are able to move around complex environments more efficiently, handle fragile objects, and be used in many robot-human connections. Some of the areas that they are used in include rehabilitation exoskeletons and robotic clothing. Soft-bio type robots could eventually explore remote and dangerous environments much more safely than humans. 

The soft robots that we have now contain rigid and noisy pumps that are used to push fluid into important areas. This hurts the possibility of what soft robots can be since their mobility and autonomy are limited by the pumps and tubes. 

Researchers from EPFL’s Soft Transducers Laboratory (LMTS) and Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS), along with researchers from Shibaura Institute of Technology in Tokyo, Japan, are responsible for these new developments. The two groups are the first to have developed an entirely soft pump, all the way down to the electrodes. The new pump weighs about one gram, and it is completely silent while using a very small amount of energy. The power comes from a 2 cm by 2 cm circuit and a rechargeable battery. This new pump might also be able to get rid of the need to use tethers. 

Herbert Shea, the director of the LMTS, spoke about the new technology. 

“If we want to actuate larger robots, we connect several pumps together,” Shea said. “We consider this a paradigm shift in the field of soft robotics.” 

The researchers published their work in an article in Nature. 

Another way that the soft pumps can be used is to circulate fluids throughout smart clothing. They would do this by moving the liquids around in thin flexible tubes that are embedded within the clothing. There are many possibilities for this including cooling and heating different areas of the body by moving the liquids there. Many professions would benefit from this technology including surgeons, athletes, and pilots. 

The new soft pumps are “based on the physical mechanism used today to circulate the cooling liquid in systems like supercomputers.” The layout of the pump includes a tube-shaped channel that is 1 mm in diameter, and inside are rows of printed electrodes. Inside the pump is a dielectric liquid. Voltages are applied, and electrons then go from the electrodes to the liquid. This causes some of the molecules to become electrically charged. These molecules then become attracted to other electrodes, and they pull the fluid through the tube with them. According to Vito Cacucciolo, a post doctorate at the LMTS and the leading author of the study, “We can speed up the flow by adjusting the electrical field, yet it remains completely silent.” 

This technology is already being tested in some areas. The researchers were able to successfully implant the pump into a robotic finger that is commonly used in robotics labs. The researchers are also working with Koichi Suzumori’s laboratory in Japan. There, they are working on fluid-driven artificial muscles as well as flexible exoskeletons. 

The team of researchers have also used the new technology in a fabric glove. The glove has tubes throughout it that are able to carry liquid in order to heat and cool different areas of the glove. “It works a little like your home heating and cooling system,” Cacucciolo said. 

This new technology will continue to develop and it is likely to attract companies from a variety of different fields. Some have even shown interest early on. There are many possibilities with the new soft robots and stretchable pumps that can help develop many human-robot interface products

 

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Study Suggests Robots Are More Persuasive When They Pretend To Be Human

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Study Suggests Robots Are More Persuasive When They Pretend To Be Human

Advances in artificial intelligence have created bots and machines that can potentially pass as humans if they interact with people exclusively through a digital medium. Recently, a team of computer science researchers have studied how robots/machines and humans interact when the humans believe that the robots are also human. As reported by ScienceDaily, the results of the study found that people find robots/chatbots more persuasive when they believe the bots are human.

Talal Rahwan, the associate professor of Computer Science at NYU Abu Dhabi, has recently led a study that examined how robots and humans interact with each other. The results of the experiment were published in Nature Machine Intelligence in a report called Transparency-Efficiency Tradeoff in Human-Machine Cooperation. During the course of the study, test subjects were instructed to play a cooperative game with a partner, and the partner may be either a human or a bot.

The game was a twist on the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, where participants must decide whether or not to cooperate or betray the other on every round. In a prisoner’s dilemma, one side may choose to defect and betray their partner to achieve a benefit at cost to the other player, and only by cooperating can both sides assure themselves of gain.

The researchers manipulated their test subjects by providing them with either correct or incorrect information about the identity of their partner. Some of the participants were told that they were playing with a bot, even though their partner was actually human. Other participants were in the inverse situation. Over the course of the experiment, the research team was able to quantify if people treated partners differently when they were told their partners were bots. The researchers tracked the degree to which any prejudice against the bots existed, and how these attitudes impacted interactions with bots who identified themselves.

The results of the experiment demonstrated that bots were more effective at engendering cooperation from their partners when the human believed that the bot was also a human. However, when it was revealed that the bot was a bot, cooperation levels dropped. Rahwan explained that while many scientists and ethicists agree that AI should be transparent regarding how decisions are made, it’s less clear that they should also be transparent about their nature when communicating with others.

Last year, Google Duplex made a splash when a stage demo showed that it was capable of making phone calls and booking appointments on behalf of its use, generating human-like speech so sophisticated that many people would have mistaken it for a real person had they not been told they were speaking to a bot. Since the debut of Google Duplex, many AI and robot ethicists voiced their concerns over the technology, prompting Google to say that it would have the agent identify itself as a bot in the future. Currently, Google Duplex is only being used in a very limited capacity. It will soon see use in New Zealand, but only to check for the operating hours of businesses. Ethicists are still worried about the degree to which the technology could be misused.

Rahawan argues that the recent study demonstrates that we should consider what costs we are willing to pay in return for transparency:

“Is it ethical to develop such a system? Should we prohibit bots from passing as humans, and force them to be transparent about who they are? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then our findings highlight the need to set standards for the efficiency cost that we are willing to pay in return for such transparency.”

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Flexible Robot “Grows” Like a Plant

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Flexible Robot “Grows” Like a Plant

Engineers from MIT have designed a robot that can extend a chain-like appendage. This makes the robot extremely flexible, and it can configure itself in multiple different ways. At the same time, it is strong enough to support heavy weight or apply torque, making it capable of assembling parts in small spaces. After completing its tasks, the robot is able to retract the appendage, and it can extend it again with a different length and shape. 

This newly developed robot can make a difference in areas like warehouses, where most of the robots are not able to put themselves in narrow spaces. The new plant-like robot can be used to grab products at the back of a shelf, and it can even move around a car’s engine parts to unscrew an oil cap. 

The design was inspired by plants and the way they grow. In that process, nutrients are transported to the plant’s tip as a fluid. Once they reach the tip, they are converted into solid material that produces, a little at a time, a supportive stem. 

The plant-like robot has a “growing point” or gearbox, which draws a loose chain of interlocking blocks into the box. Once there, gears lock the chain units together and release the chain, unit by unit, until it forms a rigid appendage. 

Team of Engineers

The new robot was presented this week at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) in Macau. In the future, the engineers would like to add on grippers, cameras, and sensors that could be mounted onto the gearbox. This would allow the robot to tighten a loose screw after making its way through an aircraft’s propulsion system. It could also retrieve a product without disturbing anything in the near surroundings. 

Harry Asada is a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.

“Think about changing the oil in your car,”  Asada says. “After you open the engine roof, you have to be flexible enough to make sharp turns, left and right, to get to the oil filter, and then you have to be strong enough to twist the oil filter cap to remove it.”

Tongxi Yan is a former graduate student in Asada’s lab, and he led the work.

“Now we have a robot that can potentially accomplish such tasks,” he says. “It can grow, retract, and grow again to a different shape, to adapt to its environment.”

The team of engineers also consisted of MIT graduate student Emily Kamienski and visiting scholar Seiichi Teshigawara.

Plant-Like Robot

After defining the different aspects of plant growth, the team looked to implement it into a robot. 

“The realization of the robot is totally different from a real plant, but it exhibits the same kind of functionality, at a certain abstract level,” Asada says.

The gearbox was designed to represent the robot’s “growing tip,” which is the equivalent of a bud of a plant. That is where most nutrients flow up to the site, and the tip builds a rigid stem. The box consists of a system of gears and motors, and they pull up a fluidized material. For this robot, it is a sequence of 3-D printed plastic units that are connected with each other. 

The robot is capable of being programmed to choose which units to lock together and which to leave unlocked. This allows it to form specific shapes and “grow” in specific directions.

“It can be locked in different places to be curved in different ways, and have a wide range of motions,” Yan says.

The chain is able to support a one-pound weight when locked and rigid. If a gripper were to be attached, the researchers believe it would be able to grow long enough to maneuver through a narrow space, and perform tasks such as unscrewing a cap.

 

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Researchers Develop Resilient RoboBee with Soft Muscles

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Researchers Develop Resilient RoboBee with Soft Muscles

Researchers at the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), along with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, have developed a RoboBee powered by soft artificial muscles. The microrobot is capable of crashing into walls, falling on the ground, and colliding with other RoboBees without suffering damage. In what is a big moment for robotics, the RoboBee is the first microrobot powered by soft actuators that is able to achieve controlled flight. 

Yufeng Chen is first author of the paper and a former graduate student and postdoctoral fellow at SEAS.

“There has been a big push in the field of microrobotics to make mobile robots out of soft actuators because they are so resilient,” said Chen. “However, many people in the field have been skeptical that they could be used for flying robots because the power density of those actuators simply hasn’t been high enough and they are notoriously difficult to control. Our actuator has high enough power density and controllability to achieve hovering flight.”

The research was published in Nature.

Issues Encountered

One of the problems that the researchers dealt with was power density. They looked to the electrically-driven soft actuators that were developed in the lab of David Clarke, the Extended Tarr Family Professor of Materials. The soft actuators are created by using dielectric elastomers, which are soft materials that have strong insulating properties. When an electric field is applied, the dielectric elastomers deform. 

After improving the electrode conductivity, the actuator was able to be operated at 500 Hertz. This is similar to previously used rigid actuators in robots. 

One of the other issues with soft actuators is that the system often becomes unstable. To get past this, the researchers developed a lightweight airframe. It consisted of a piece of vertical constraining thread in order to prevent the actuator from buckling. 

Flight Capability

Within the small scale robots, the soft actuators are able to be swapped out and assembled easily. The researchers developed multiple different models of the soft-powered RoboBee in order to showcase the various flight capabilities. 

One of the models has two wings, and it can take off from the ground. However, this model has no further control. A four-wing, two actuator model is capable of flying in a crowded environment. Within a single flight, the RoboBee is able to avoid multiple collisions.

Elizabeth Farrell Helbling is a former graduate student at SEAS, and she co-authored the paper. 

“One advantage of small-scale, low-mass robots is their resilience to external impacts,” she said. “The soft actuator provides an additional benefit because it can absorb impact better than traditional actuation strategies. This would come in handy in potential applications such as flying through rubble for search and rescue missions.”

Another model is the eight-wing, four-actuator RoboBee. It is capable of performing controlled hovering flight, which is the first time it has been demonstrated by a soft-powered flying microrobot. 

What’s Next?

The researchers are now looking to increase the efficiency of the soft-powered RoboBee. It still has a long way to go before catching up to traditional flying robots. 

Robert Wood is a Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences in SEAS. He is also a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and senior author of the paper. 

“Soft actuators with muscle-like properties and electrical activation represent a grand challenge in robotics,” says Professor Wood.  “If we could engineer high-performance artificial muscles, the sky is the limit for what robots we could build.”

 

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