The Softer Side of Robotics: Q&A with RE.WORK Speaker Jamie Paik

By David Knight |

Robots that can fold themselves into different forms like origami, robots that can help people recover faster from spinal cord injuries, robots that adjust to the ever-changing and extremely sensitive nature of human skin: Technology isn’t just about Facebook’s latest acquisition. The field of soft robotics promises huge things in the near future, and will be one of the discussion topics at the RE.WORK Technology Summit in Berlin on June 19-20.

The event, which is being held at the Umweltforum, will explore emerging technologies shaping the future of business and society. Topics include the effect of sensors and big data on cities, how nanotechnology and smart materials will affect manufacturing processes and augmented reality.

There will also be a startup stage called Shaping Tomorrow showcasing new businesses and innovation that embody cutting-edge technology and science – the deadline to apply is May 16.

You can buy your ticket now – and be quick, because early bird tickets, with €200 off the full price, end on Friday, May 2.

Among the speakers will be Jamie Paik the director of the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, who will talk at RE.WORK about soft robotics. A “classically-trained” mechanical engineer who has previously worked on anthropomorphic robots and endoscopic surgical tools, Jamie spoke to Silicon Allee about robots that can transform.

SILICON ALLEE: You’re going to be talking about soft robots at RE.WORK – what exactly does that mean?

JAMIE PAIK: A soft robot is a very new paradigm of robotics, where a robot is made out of soft material and it has extra degrees of freedom, which means you can control a lot more points of actuation than a conventional robot. Having extra degrees of freedom allows the robot to have more fluid motion and higher reconfigurability for specific tasks or different types of environment. I’ll be talking about how I define soft robots as opposed to conventional hard robots, and what kind of research efforts I am focusing on.

SA: What sort of practical applications do soft robots have in the real world?

JP: Soft robots in general have a design focus towards being more adaptable, more compliant, for different unknown tasks or unknown environments. Specifically, robotic origamis – or robogamis – which I also consider to be a soft robot, is not necessarily completely made of soft materials, however it also has heightened degrees of freedom that allows it to deform and transform into different shapes like paper origami.

In real world applications, one of the most complex and difficult surfaces for a robot to conform to is around the human body. Not only does the human body have many different joints, but it’s also very sensitive, and it’s covered with skin which doesn’t maintain the same position all the time because it’s malleable and soft. It is a very difficult surface to work with – it is never concretely in one form, it never stays in one place. So if we have a robot that can transform its body into different shapes in different environments, for example human skin, you can use this robogami as if it’s an intelligent band aid, or intelligent cast.

One of the research efforts that we are working on is facial prosthetics. This is for people with facial palsy who need to go through physical therapy sessions once or twice a week to regain use of disabled facial muscles. They go through certain exercises that help them to regain muscle tone and muscle activity. But instead of using your own fingers, you can use this mask that not only conforms to the face but also induces exercise by physical stimulation directly onto the face.

SA: What other specific uses of soft robotics are there?

JP: Another type of soft robot that we are working is an exoskeleton for rat rehabilitation for the lower limb. For humans who have suffered a spinal cord injury, there are different types of therapy. One of the most prevalent is physical therapy. And in order to do that you need a couple of physical therapists who help you to move each leg, and a third person to maintain the balance between the movement of the two legs. For spinal cord injury research, instead of working on humans directly we work on either non-human primates or rats. And we are currently developing a soft exo-skeleton for rats who would otherwise go through similar physical therapy exercises on the lower limbs. The soft robot becomes very useful in this case because rats are about 200g each, plus or minus 100g, so the weight variance is very high and it’s very small and very fragile. If you were to use conventional robots directly on the rat, they would be way too heavy. It’s our aim to provide a very soft and compliant actuation for the rats.

SA: What challenges do soft roboticists face in developing this technology?

JP: The biggest challenge for any roboticist is the availability of motors and censors. We have conventional electric motors, pneumatic motors, even ultrasonic motors, that have been around for the past ten decades or so, but they have limitations. Initially, robots were developed for industrial applications. They were always meant to be faster, stronger and more resilient than humans. But now we want robots to come more into our lives directly. For these robots to be so strong and so fast, to be in our homes and right next to us, it causes danger.

This not only imposes the need for security measures to be taken during the design process but also, in order to have a robot that is closer to us, we need safer motors,which means smaller and slower motors, as ell as sensors which are more sensitive so they can replace the preceptive sensing ability of humans.

On top of that, there is a power aspect as well – a battery is one the best power sources we have now. Power source, sensors and actuator development are the three key important aspects of making the next generation of robot.

SA: What do you expect the developments in soft robotics in the next few years to be?

JP: Soft robotics hasn’t been around that long, at least the term hasn’t. So among the community of soft roboticists, we are trying to define what this is, and how it professes itself to be not necessarily better but different, and what challenges it can meet compared to conventional robots. It’s about making an inclusive, not exclusive, community of roboticists with a focus on design, material and computation as well as the architecture of robots that are highly focused on reconfigurability, conformability and safety. We can see soft robots developed not for large skills but for smaller skills for everyday use – grip and drop assemblies, medical robots, search and rescue, something that doesn’t necessarily require high power and high speed but more towards safety and comfort.

Photo: Alain Herzog