Creating solid matter that can autonomously adapt to its environment without any external intervention: it might seem like the stuff of sci-fi fantasy. But designing and manufacturing such materials is what the Soft Robotics Matter group at the AMOLF research institute is doing from its base at Amsterdam Science Park. “The intelligence is in the material itself,” says group leader Bas Overvelde.
Overvelde’s group focuses on research at the crossroads of mechanical metamaterials and soft robotics: first understanding the geometry and structure of materials, then designing and creating new materials that behave in a certain way. Those materials can then be used to build autonomous robotic structures. Applications range from automated tomato-picking systems to an artificial heart, and from shock absorbers to unfolding solar panels on a satellite in space. Sascha Luinenburg of the Science and Business team talked to Overvelde about the technology and what AMOLF can offer to innovative companies.
What does your research have to offer companies?
Soft robots are interesting because they are inherently a better way of working with people. For example, as a typical robot is very stiff, when trying to grab my arm it could exert to much force. Therefore, you have to measure how much force it exerts, and then you have to tell that robot: you shouldn’t squeeze too hard. This means you must build in computer-controlled feedback. With soft robots, it’s very different – they themselves will deform and adapt to the shape they are trying to grab, and are limited in the force they can apply. You don’t have to measure the force, and control the pressure. That’s why we say: the intelligence is in the system itself. The feedback is already built into the design.
You could use this in the agri-food sector, for example, using pneumatic soft bending actuators to pick tomatoes or even softer fruits.
We are happy to connect you.
“Besides the aim to provide an alternative solution for heart failure, we are also shaping new collaborations with researchers and industry
So the device must be able to grab, but must it also be able to know if it has grabbed something?
Absolutely, you still need some form of feedback, for example to determine the size and sort the objects. In our group, we are working on a way to measure successful gripping without building in sensors, for example by monitoring externally how the soft actuators inflate. Incorporating sensors has always been the standard practice until now, but that increases the complexity of the system, reducing its reliability. That’s why we thought: can we do that differently?
Another application we are working on, together with a surgeons and tissue engineers, is trying to make a soft artificial heart that undergoes a similar contraction as the human heart, mimicking it as much as possible. The soft artificial heart (HybridHeart) can pump blood and will have a natural interaction with the body because of its “softness” that resembles human tissue. It’s a very interesting collaboration, and besides the aim to provide an alternative solution for heart failure, we are also shaping new collaborations with researchers and industry.
So you collaborate with partners from the business world?
I’ve worked a lot with academic partners and we are now looking at how we can bring together the Dutch soft robotics community and create more cooperation between academic and industrial partners. There is a strong agrifood and medical history in the Netherlands, that could benefit from the new developments in soft robotics. Collaborations with industry are essential to bring research to society, but sometimes there is a distance between us and businesses; maybe because they don’t know the technology, maybe because sometimes we are a little too keen to do non-applied research. So it’s always a search to find the right partners.
And what can be done to strengthen such partnerships?
That’s a tough question. I do think that we in the academic world can be quite a bit more application-oriented, that we could work with companies that say: this is a problem, can you solve it? But what you often see is that the timescales of academia and industry are different. If industry comes to you with a problem, they wanted it solved yesterday. Research looks more to the future. For a company – except perhaps a very large one – a four- or five-year plan is a very long time. And for research, that’s relatively short. So it’s an art to bridge that difference. I think it’s important at this point to involve people in your research and to share experiences. From there, you could also build longer-term partnerships within soft robotics.
“Soft robotics is actually a very simple technology, but if you don’t know it, you don’t know how to get started using it
How do you see partnerships with companies developing in the coming years?
For companies interested in robotics, soft robotics does require a different way of thinking. Normally, when you build a robot you have software, and you can program the software. There is flexibility in that. To develop soft robots, the behavior is built into the, and if it’s not good, you have to start again and redesign it. But the advantage is that ultimately it’s much easier and safer to use. We are still finding each other, but I’m convinced there must be problems for industries that are on a longer timescale for which they would make [R &D] funding available.
Do you think there’s a lack of awareness about what your research and these new technologies can offer industry?
Yes, I think so. Soft robotics is a new research direction, and it is not something that people encounter often. We are strongly committed to building a consortium in the Netherlands that includes companies, not just academics, and for which we do not need direct funding. Then we can meet once a month or once every two months, just to share knowledge. From there, we can create interest. Soft robotics is actually a very simple technology, but if you don’t know it, you don’t know how to get started using it.
How do you see the interaction between your group at AMOLF and the broader knowledge ecosystem at Amsterdam Science Park?
There is a broad academic network at the park that we are collaborating with, but not so much interaction with companies. Not that we don’t want that, but maybe we just don’t know how to find each other. I can imagine that there are businesses or startups that would like to spend a day in our 3D printing lab, or who want to use our facilities with us, and in that way exchange experiences. The invitation is there!
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Cover photo made by: Lukas Helmbrecht
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