Trinity-Harvard Team Leading the Way in Soft Robotics Research

The Soft Robotics Toolkit, which was launched some 18 months ago to help engineers share advice, how-to videos and case studies for next-gen soft robotics, is proving to be a real hotbed of inspiration for those working in the industry.

The Toolkit was developed by researchers from several labs in Harvard in collaboration with engineers from Trinity College Dublin.

“The goal of the toolkit is to advance the field of soft robotics by allowing designers and researchers to build upon each other’s work,” says Conor Walsh, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

While robotics engineering used to focus much more attention on creating the rigid, hard-bodied prototypes we all conjure when asked to picture a robot, there has been a real push in the last decade or so to focus more on soft, malleable structures that can adapt to any non-uniform environment.

As is often the case, much of this inspiration has come from watching how animals solve seemingly impossible challenges in the natural world. For example, copying the way that flexible limbs envelope objects to manipulate them has helped engineers design robots that are able to pick up – and interact with – oddly shaped utensils.

Dónal Holland is one of the lead developers of the toolkit and is especially interested in its potential as an educational resource. Donal contributed to the toolkit’s early development as a graduate student at Trinity College Dublin while undertaking a PhD in engineering design education and as a visiting fellow in the Harvard Biodesign Lab.

The toolkit development was published in Soft Robotics, a recently launched journal, dedicated to this field which has attracted so much attention. The article can be viewed here.

“The collaboration with Harvard has proven to be enormously successful,” said Dr Gareth J Bennett, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering in the School of Engineering at Trinity.

“In the 17 months since it was launched, the site has had over 500,000 page views by more than 76,000 people in 150 countries. In addition, the toolkit has now been identified as having made one of the most significant contributions to the development of the nascent and disruptive Soft Robotics research field as recently reported on in Nature,”- see here.

The Soft Robotics Toolkit continues to thrive. The latest exciting development encourages students to avail of the resources provided by the toolkit to design and build their own soft robots. The ultimate goal of the competition is to encourage others to find innovative applications for soft robotics technology and to continue expanding interest in this relatively new field.

“Last year, we were really impressed with the variety and quality of entries,” Holland said. “The participants came up with fantastic ideas that we never would have thought of, and we hope that this year we will receive even more submissions.”

The inaugural contest, which drew 87 initial entries from around the world, has been expanded to include separate categories for academic researchers, college students, and high school students. Winning projects will also be featured on the Soft Robotics Toolkit website.

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