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Essential Science: New speed record achieved for a soft robot

One of the main applications for soft and micro-robots is with examining hard to reach areas, such as inside pipework. Another important application is with rescue robots, where robots can be directed to area where it is too dangerous for people to enter or where the use of a drone would not yield the necessary image clarity.

Looking to animals

Researchers based at North Carolina University have made a step-forwards in soft robotics, drawing inspiration from the animal kingdom. The reference point for the development is the biomechanics of cheetahs.

A close-up view of a Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus cub.
A close-up view of a Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus cub.
Muhammad Mahdi Karim (GNU License)

The examination of the big cats enabled technologists to construct a special form of soft robot that is capable of moving relatively quickly on solid surfaces (at 2.7 body lengths per second). With the flat surface a new record speed for soft robot has been achieved. Progress has also been made with the rate that a robot moves up a sharp incline. In addition to land, the robot can move relatively speedily through water. With both land and water, the robots are capable of speeds far faster than seen with previous generations of soft robots.

In addition, the soft robots (which are just 7 centimeters in length) have the capability to grab objects either delicately, in the case of easily damaged materials; or, where there are heavy objects, with sufficient strength.

A new soft robot takes inspiration from natural growers. In the lab  researchers tasked it with navi...
A new soft robot takes inspiration from natural growers. In the lab, researchers tasked it with navigating a maze, as well as other challenges.
E.W. Hawkes, L.H. Blumenschein, and J.D. Greer
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The two variables of finesse and strength are achieved by a dual-mode on the robot. This mode enables the controller to switch between either state rapidly by pumping air into channels. The channels are aligned within the soft, silicone robot.

Further research will attempt to get robots to move faster across uneven terrain, such as pebbles or wood chips. The more surfaces a robot can overcome, the better the application in terms of search-and-rescue operations.

The animal-inspired robot research has been published in the journal Science Advances, with the research paper titled “Leveraging Elastic instabilities for Amplified Performance (LEAP): spine-inspired high-speed and high-force soft robots.”

Improving robot movement

Using techniques from the world of film making, researchers have developed an algorithm based on discrete elastic rods (DER) in order to animate free-flowing objects. The importance of the DER technique is that it can predict hundreds of movements in less than one second.

The focus of the research here was to construct a physics engine based on DER which can simulate the movements of bio-inspired robots, as well as helping to advance the deployment or robots for extreme environments, including the surface of Mars.

Making soft robots even more flexible

For the application of robots to be improved, many types of robots need to become more flexible (such as harnessing elastic properties to overcome the restrictions with structural rigidity). Flexibility also impinges on the creation of micro-robots, since scaling down can change some of the principles governing aspects such as stride length and joint stiffness. This matter of improving flexibility was the aim of a recent study from the University of Tokyo.

The robot named Alter 3  on display at the Barbican  London. Alter is a robot developed for the purp...
The robot named Alter 3, on display at the Barbican, London. Alter is a robot developed for the purpose of exploring what it means to be “life-like.”
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The concern of the Japanese researchers was that the flexibility of many current robots is limited through the necessary inclusion of rigid sensors, which are central to the control of each machine.

To overcome this, the technologists embedded sensors into a robot which provided far more flexibility, paving the way for soft robots to become more resilient. This would mean that robots could help to improve wearable devices or have a greater application within the biomedical field.


These developments are of importance, given the growth with the use and application of robots. The more improvements to micro- and soft robots, the greater the range of uses. Soft robots have enormous potential for a wide spectrum of applications, ranging from minimally invasive surgical tools and exoskeletons to warehouse grippers and video game add-ons.

Essential Science

This article forms part of Digital Journal’s regular science output, under the column heading of ‘Essential Science’. With each article, Tim Sandle examines the latest research in relation to a cutting-edge topic or matter of public concern.

Fast Food
A plate of food from TGI Fridays
dbasulto (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last week our focus was with concentration and we looked at research which suggested that a higher consumption of fatty foods was associated with lower rates of concentration. This was shown through a controlled dietary study, where the same foods were cooked using different oils.

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The week before our topic was based on a round-up of the latest COVID-19 research, including a discussion around drug development and other novel therapeutics.

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