Innovation Monitor: Flexible, bendable and kind of like an octopus — the world of Soft Robotics

NYC Media Lab
6 min readApr 2, 2021


Innovation Monitor: Flexible, bendable and kind of like an octopus — the world of Soft Robotics

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Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.

This week’s edition covers something a bit distant from the media-meets-tech landscape, but that represents a major component in the future of technology: Soft Robotics.

Think fluid, bendable, flexible, octopus-like robots that will solve problems in ways that previously would’ve been unimaginable. An endoscope at a doctor’s office might be a rudimentary version of what we’ll be talking about, but the base concept is a similar one.

Adaptability isn’t often a robots’ strong suit. Hard edges, inflexible components, and stiff movements prevent robots from adapting to changing environments. Even robots that give the illusion of physical grace are specialized, having been meticulously programmed to do that specific task (…but, we’ll still let you enjoy a classic Boston Dynamics dancing robot video).

Soft robotics is an emerging field that aims to create safer, more flexible, and more adaptable robots. This week, we’ll explore how soft robots work, and how they’re made and used.

Finally, do you know when the first consumer laptop computer was introduced? Read on to find out. As always, stay safe & thank you for reading, and if you were forwarded this email, you can easily sign up here!

All best,
Erica Matsumoto Hundreds of soft little robots In her 2018 TED talk, biomedical engineer Giada Gerboni emphasized the objective of soft robotics wasn’t super-precise machines (because we have those already), but “to make robots able to face unexpected situations in the real world.”

One such situation could be a disaster scenario. “One can imagine hundreds of cheap, soft robots being sent in to investigate a scene, wriggle through obstacles, and navigate tight quarters to assist in a rescue mission,” wrote Fast Company earlier this year.

NASA scientists are developing soft robots that can not just survive on Mars, but also “form temporary shelters and perform various tasks.” Instead of plastic, prosthetics could be created from softer hardware.

“Surgical instruments (notably endoscopes) [can] make use of soft robotics, enabling them to navigate around bodily structures more easily than traditional instruments can.” Similarly, “carbon-based titanium polymers can be used in combination with synthetic polymers to create ultrathin artificial muscles.” And soft wearable robotic exosuits can help patients walk after strokes, according to one study.

Biologically inspired While they look alien compared to hard robots, soft robots are much closer to biology than their rigid counterparts. One beautiful example is a jellyfish-inspired soft robot.

Jellyfish and squid that live miles underwater are beyond the range of scuba divers. Even sampling tools attached to submarines are risky, as they can harm the creatures. David Gruber, a marine biologist at the City University of New York, and his team engineered soft robots to help study deep-sea life — without causing harm to the specimens.

“Each of the six noodle-like fingers is composed of thin strips of silicone with a hollow channel inside. The inside edges of the fingers have a stiffer nanofiber coating that controls how they curve. They are attached to a 3D-printed rectangular palm in such a way that they can be removed individually and replaced if they start to become arthritic.”

In another project, Colorado State University researchers designed a programmable twisted-and-coiled actuator that can grip, twist, and bend… inspired by the octopus.

Powering soft tech The part that’s often confusing about soft robotics is how they’re actually powered. Is there a small battery, are the chips and circuits flexible? The answer is sort of… but not in the way we’ve to expect. While some soft robots are powered by small batteries and hard chips, researchers are trying to build robots completely made of flexible materials.

In 2016, Harvard developed the first “autonomous, untethered, entirely soft robot” made up of liquid silicone rubber. The below video briefly introduces microfluidic chips and chemical power. (“Amazingly, the Octobot is cheaper to make than a latte, and it costs only 5¢ to fill it with fuel.”)

While microfluidics has been its own thing for the past few decades (particularly life science research, personalized medicine, and more recently genetic research), the worlds of soft robotics and microfluidics are merging as both areas mature. (Here is a great deep-dive into this interdisciplinary approach.)

Microfluidic chips are a “set of micro-channels etched or molded into a material…. The micro-channels forming the microfluidic chip are connected together in order to achieve the desired features (mix, pump, sort, or control the biochemical environment).”

If microfluidic chips are the equivalent of future processors for soft robots, what about the motor? That’s where soft, fluid-based actuators — which convert energy to mechanical movements in soft robots — come in.

This is an active area of research — Disney Research has some cool prototype videos on their YouTube channel. Check out their work below.

Flaws in the soft system While rigidity isn’t ideal for precarious environments, traditional robotics has the advantage of power and predictability.

Fluid actuators are slow to power up due to the “sheer amount of fluid that is required to compel movement, or because their flow is slowed by various structures within the device (such as tubes and valves),” according to Fast Company.

It’s also difficult for a soft robot to track its body parts, which can deform “in a virtually infinite number of ways,” as MIT News notes.

To help with the latter problem, MIT researchers developed a deep learning algorithm that suggests an optimized placement of sensors on the robot’s body, “allowing it to better interact with its environment and complete assigned tasks.” Check out more on the sensor placement solution below.

This Week in Business History April 3rd, 1986: IBM unveils the PC Convertible, the world’s first laptop computer

The PC Convertible was IBM’s second “portable” computer, but the first true laptop style machine (its predecessor was more a suitcase computer that still needed to be plugged in and was thirty pounds).

The Convertible comprised many firsts for IBM: their first computer to run on batteries, the first IBM computer to have 3.5-inch floppy drives and their first use of Surface Mounted Devices in a computer. The best way to take this trip down memory lane is to watch these videos, first a commercial for the device, and next, a YouTuber who managed to find a functional, original device and sets it up!

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