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Robots of the Future: making soft robots for the natural world

Microscale Sensors and Systems Lab,
Prof. Robert White, Tufts University
To make machines that are integrated into all aspects of our lives we will have to engineer devices that don't stumble or knock into things and that we can touch and pick up. This vision of Soft Robots in our homes, hospitals, and offices highlights an urgent need for new approaches to building moving devices. Ultimately we expect that machines interacting with living systems will be biocompatible and biodegradable — Green Machines.

Soft Material Robotics is rooted in biomimetics. The concepts and solutions are inspired by animals that have already evolved desirable capabilities (see box). However, rather than replicating natural designs, the engineered devices will use discoveries in biology to invent new materials, structures and controls. These findings can be incorporated into existing machines to make them more robust and adaptable. In the long-term, we envision that this approach will even extend to using living systems to assemble, actuate and power moving devices. Living cells contain the instructions and mechanisms to build their own nano-scale structures and then to self assemble into complete tissues and organisms. Using molecular, cell and tissue engineering, these capabilities can be controlled to produce an entirely new type of organic machine.

To produce such machines, we need interdisciplinary scientists and engineers who have depth and breadth of knowledge in a range of fields, including biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, and computer science, and are comfortable working in a highly collaborative manner on high-innovation, high-risk projects. This Soft Material Robotics IGERT is designed to provide the resources and environment to train a new generation of technologically expert scientists and engineers.