A University of Bristol team has demonstrated a new way of embedding computation into soft robotic materials, thereby bringing the possibility of life-like robots that can adapt to their environment, learn and make decisions one step closer.
The Bristol (www.bristol.ac.uk
) team says this new advance, published in Science Robotics, could create new robotic possibilities for environmental monitoring, pollution clean-up, drug delivery, prosthetic devices, wearable biosensing and self-healing composites.
So far, the complexity and range of learnt behaviours that can be created using only materials-based control approaches have been limited, but by taking inspiration from biology, the concept of Soft Matter Computers (SMCs) aims to mimic the workings of the vascular system, where hormones such as adrenaline are released into the bloodstream and disperse throughout the body.
When detected by a receptor, the hormones trigger responses in particular parts of the body, such as increased blood flow in ‘flight’ muscles and dilation of the pupils in the eyes.
Researchers in Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, led by Jonathan Rossiter, have successfully demonstrated a new mechanism that enabled computation to be embedded in three soft robots.
In the paper, the team describe how a conductive fluid receptor is a viable and fundamental building block for a range of SMCs and next-generation robots.
In the future, SMCs could mirror this process by translating information in the structure of a fluidic tape that travels through the soft body of the robot and is detected by a receptor, which then generates an output.
Professor Rossiter said: “We have taken an important step toward entirely soft autonomous robots and for smart materials to move beyond stimulus-response relationships, which could enable the intelligent behaviours seen in living organisms.
"Soft robots could become even more life-like, capable of independently adapting to their environment and demonstrating the diversity of behaviours seen in the natural world.”