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Tufts researchers receive grant for soft-bodied robots

Published: Monday, November 5, 2012

Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 06:11


Andrew Schneer / The Tufts Daily

Researchers have received a grant to continue work on soft-bodied robots.


Tufts researchers recently received a $2.7 million training grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program that will enable them to further their work on soft-bodied robotic technology. 

Researchers at Tufts have been working on these revolutionary robots for approximately six years, according to Professor of Biology Barry Trimmer, who is the principal investigator of the Neuromechanics and Biomimetic Devices Laboratory, where the research is being conducted.

The NSF grant promotes interdisciplinary and collaborative research, which will allow graduate students in different fields to contribute their knowledge. 

“Students from many different backgrounds ... can enter this program if their work and their interests are ultimately directed towards building these new technologies,” Trimmer said.  

The soft-bodied robots are modeled primarily on caterpillars and are constructed of silicone instead of metal, according to Professor David Kaplan, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Rather than being hard and unyielding, prototypes are pliant to the touch.

These robots could be used to deliver medicine within the human body, as they would not have to be attached to a wire, according to Chinami Michaels, a junior who did laboratory work last summer focusing on the neurobiology side of the project.

“[The grant] is a really big deal,” she said.

The robots can also be a helpful household presence, according to Trimmer. 

“If you’re an older person and need assistance ... the robot is going to be much more friendly, both in appearance and in manner and in its structure,” he said.

The soft-bodied robot project is aimed to address the disconnect between conventional robots and the needs of modern human life.

“[Currently], robots are not very compatible with the human world or with the natural world,” Trimmer explained.

Mechanical robots of the 21st century are not designed to be used practically in everyday life, so to be better suited to ordinary life outside of factories, robots must be designed to be more like animals instead of automobiles and other mechanical devices, according to Trimmer. 

The robots’ physical flexibility gives them an advantage, according to Trimmer. 

“If you want to send these [robots] to a space station, you can pack 2,000 of them into a coffee cup,” he said. 

Current research is focusing on how to use living tissue in the bodies of the robots rather than silicone. Implementing this tissue technology will help advance research to move past silicone, according to Trimmer.

“We need to know how to tell the muscle what we want it to do,” he said. “That’s the tissue engineering part [of building the robots].”

“If you can take the power of biology and harness it, make it do what you want to do, you can engineer machines out of living tissue,” Trimmer added. 

Trimmer noted that this technique is different from stem cell research, which tries to get cells to do what they are already programmed to do. 

Although it is too early in the research to understand with certainty the possible applications of this technology, the ongoing research at Tufts and other institutions offers great potential, according to Kaplan.

“The hard part is getting everything to work well, be robust enough and controlled,” he said. “[The robots will] redefine the way you think about robot technology.”

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