Soft robots on the move

Soft robots on the move

a small soft robot bent forward in the middle
TU’s soft robot, Squishy, displaying a wrinkle (circled in red)

Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Joshua Schultz traveled to Philadelphia to attend and present recent research on soft robotics at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) conference. This gathering is the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s flagship conference. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was Schultz and his collaborators’ first in-person presentation since receiving the National Science Foundation Emerging Frontiers grant in January 2020.

In an earlier paper published in Frontiers in Robotics and AI, Schultz and Postdoctoral Associate Peter (Phuc D.H.) Bui reported on the development of a semilinear parameter-varying observer (state estimator) they tested on an inflatable, fabric-reinforced soft robot named Squishy. Drawing on that work, for their ICRA presentation the duo, along with collaborators at Brigham Young University, focused on a method for dynamically simulating soft robots to predict their future movements.

a diagram showing two circles and a set of arrows pointing between them
Illustration of the mathematical relationships between two adjacent “discs” along the “thread” that joins them in the dynamic simulation environment

“The simulation environment presented at ICRA is really the flip side of the state estimator [described in the Frontiers article] coin,” remarked Schultz. “We shared with conference attendees our findings on how to simulate the movement of robots like ‘Squishy’ (TU’s inflatable fabric-reinforced tentacle robot), which allows us to predict where it will be in the future.”

Schultz and his colleagues expect that the new “disc-thread” simulation environment will better represent motions that occur within Squishy’s wrinkles, pleats and folds. By combining their earlier work with their more recent investigation, Schultz says they should be able to control the robot and drive it to a sequence of positions and shapes that will complete a useful task, such as cleaning or polishing a surface.

Meet Squishy and learn more about soft robotics and the related research going on at TU in this short video.

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a selfie of two men
Joshua Schultz (right) at the ICRA conference with former student Tyler Morrison (BSME ’17), who recently earned a Ph.D. at Ohio State University

The research reported in this story is supported by NSF grant No. 1935312 EFRI C3 SoRo: Between a Soft Robot and a Hard Place: Estimation and Control Algorithms that Exploit Soft Robots’ Unique Abilities.

It’s hard not to be fascinated by robots! And there’s no better place for you to gain the knowledge, skills and networks you crave than TU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.