Scientists at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia are exploring soft robotics for space applications, including exploration and assembly.
Interns Chuck Sullivan and Jack Fitzpatrick are developing soft robot actuators that can grant machines flexibility to perform a myriad of tasks. The duo, in particular, is interested in applying soft robotics to be used in space.
Building Flexible Robots
Sullivan and Fitzpatrick are building the actuators by 3D-printing a mold and pouring in a flexible substance. The actuators have "air bladders" that expand or contract based on the amount of air in them.
The two interns are currently controlling the movement of the robots through a series of tubes in the air bladders. They adjust the air inside of the air bladders to make it either flex or relax, just like human muscles.
The pair is aiming to explore four properties of the actuators: mobility, joining, leveling, and shaping.
"We are trying to see the basic capabilities of soft robots through these four properties," stated Sullivan. " That way when someone down the road says maybe soft robotics is useful in a different application they can look at our work as a baseline."
The first property, mobility, is observing how the actuator will be able to move around its environment. NASA gave the lunar surface, where the space agency will head soon, as an example. Joining, on the other hand, is about how robots can join together to create a larger surface, perhaps to make a temporary shelter for future astronauts.
Meanwhile, leveling concerns how the actuators can create or adjust a surface as needed, like fill the space under a lunar habitat module. Fitzpatrick commented, however, that the actuators can fill other surface shapes. The fourth property, shaping, will be used to add strength to other materials, including dust shields.
"We see these four things as the crux of the problem," explained Sullivan. "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."
Robots In Space
The soft robot actuators are not yet ready for space, but NASA sees potential in them for future applications in space-based missions. Soft robots offer versatility and perform tasks that rigid machinery could not do.
Elsewhere, other scientists are also exploring soft robotics for different applications. Last year, MIT introduced a soft robo-fish that can blend in with other marine creatures and explore the ocean.
The U.S. Army Research Laboratory is also developing soft robots inspired by invertebrates.