The “soft” robots that will change our lives. An interview with Cecilia Laschi from Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies
They will assist us at work, they will save lives in case of danger, they will help us at home and they will even be able to explore our body. “Soft” robots are one of the most promising challenges in robotics, with application fields ranging from medicine to emergency management.
We talked about this with Cecilia Laschi, Professor at the BioRobotics Institute of Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, ranked among the great minds of world robotics by the international community of robotics experts in 2015, and considered one of the world’s forerunners of this innovative research field.
“Soft” robotics constructs prototypes that are far from our common idea of robots made of steel and circuits. Can you explain to us what this discipline is about?
Until now, we have imagined and built “rigid” robots using metallic materials. Now with soft robotics we can build “soft” robots that deform when under pressure and that are capable of acquiring new abilities such as stretching, growing, changing shape and evolving. This choice is the result of a careful observation of nature, in which the deformability characteristics of living organisms represent an important advantage in terms of survival and evolution, which allows plants and animals to better adapt to the environment. We realized that, if we wanted to use robots not just as “rigid” tools for industrial use, we needed to develop new solutions that would allow them to adapt to different environments and move with greater autonomy.
Can you give us some examples of “soft” robots and describe the path that led to their development?
At Sant’Anna School we started with the observation and study of the octopus, an animal with a soft body, capable of performing extremely complex tasks, such as crawling on the seabed, swimming or grabbing objects. Research led us to create OCTOPUS, the first “soft” robot having the shape of a real octopus, which was a fundamental project for the development of soft robotics and which provided the technological base for the development of this research field worldwide. Our work continued with the development of other prototypes of “soft” robots, such as the STIFF-FLOP variable stiffness endoscope, built by colleagues Menciassi and Cianchetti, which can be used inside the body without damaging the internal organs, or the I-SUPPORT “soft” robotic arm, funded under Horizon 2020, which assists older adults in taking a shower.
The journal Science has recently published an article in which you illustrate the future prospects and scientific challenges of soft robotics. Can you tell us about this?
The prospects of soft robotics are enormous and open the way to scenarios that so far have been impossible to imagine. We have to think of robots that can crawl under a door, heal their own wounds, disguise themselves in the different environments and even grow, actually increasing the amount of material that composes them. These characteristics, combined with their adaptability, allow us to use them in many fields, from the biomedical field to the exploration of unknown environments, such as the deep sea or difficult terrain. For example, we could use them for rescue operations in danger scenarios or in the rubble. At the moment, all the world’s major research centres, from the USA to Japan, are engaged in the development of new prototypes that can be used in many sectors, while Italy, internationally recognized as a pioneer in this area of research, seems to have reduced its efforts, when important application developments are expected.
If you had to imagine the world in 30 years’ time, how would you see it? Will robots become an integral part of our lives? Will robots steal our jobs?
Contrary to what imagined by classic science fiction, I don’t see a future made of humanoid robots, but many small robotic objects that will help us in everyday tasks. They will be “soft” and essentially autonomous robots, more similar to living animal or plant organisms. In homes, for example, the dream is that one day they will be able to help us to do the cleaning, make the beds and do the ironing, and some examples are already on the market, such as robot vacuum cleaners. In working environments, on the other hand, I don’t think that robots will replace humans, but rather that they will work at their side, assisting them in performing tasks and coming into play in dangerous situations. Human work will not disappear but it will be carried out with more useful and sophisticated tools, such as robots, and will become more qualified and qualifying.