Stanford engineers create a new robot that combines traditional and soft robotics

One big area of focus for robotics researchers is soft robots that are more appropriate for working directly with humans. Researchers from Stanford University have developed a new kind of soft robot that borrows features from traditional robotics while retaining the ability to move and change shape typically found in soft robots. The team says that a significant limitation of most soft robots that they require an attachment to an air compressor or have to be plugged into a wall keeping them from being able to move.The team at Stanford says that they wondered what would happen if they kept the same amount of air in their soft robot at all times. After starting with that question, the researchers developed the human-scale soft robot that's able to change its shape, allowing it to grab and handle objects as well as roll in controllable directions. The robot they developed is described as a cross between Baymax from the movie "Big Hero 6" mixed with Transformers.

The robot uses a variety of inflated tubes that run through three small machines that shape it into a triangle. One of the machines holds two ends of the tube together while the other drives along the tube, changing the overall shape of the robot moving its corners. One keys to the design of the robot is that while its shape can change dramatically, the total length of the edges and the air inside remains constant.

Making a more complex version of the robot requires the attaching of several triangles together. The team was able to coordinate movements of the different motors to get the robot to perform different behaviors. The bot can pick up the ball by engulfing on three sides or altering the robot to make it roll.

The team is currently experimenting with different shapes for their soft robot and is considering placing it in water to see the robot can swim. This team is also exploring other types of soft robots with new features and benefits.