Inside a former organ factory in San Francisco, Della Shea is building a robot with a sewing machine. She works for Pneubotics, one of a growing number of startups designing softer automatons capable of flexible movements—and, perhaps, daily interaction with humans. “Right now our process looks more like tailoring than engineering,” says Pneubotics co-founder Saul Griffith, pointing to the thick vinyl material on the sewing machine operated by Shea, whose official title is “sewboticist.”
Many of tomorrow’s robots may have more in common with beanbag chairs and bouncy houses than the hulking industrial arms in factories today. Breakthroughs in the nascent field of soft robotics, in which steel skeletons and power-hungry motors make way for textiles, are beginning to move from the laboratory to the startup world. Imagine an octopuslike robot that can squirm through rubble at a disaster site but has the strength to pull bricks off an injured person. Or a machine that can safely place an elderly person in bed. Several companies are working on these problems, frequently working from research sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the Pentagon arm that seeks and funds futuristic technology. “Soft robotics has the potential to influence all kinds of robotic and machine design,” says Gerald Van Hoy, an analyst at market research firm Gartner. “It’s a key development in the evolution of robotics.”
Pneubotics’ first product is an industrial robot arm that has no motors, bearings, shafts, or other rigid parts. It’s a shell of vinyl lined with veins and soft pressure vessels that hold air, water, or hydraulic fluid to work like muscles. The robot resembles an inflatable balloon character at a carnival, but it could beat the carnival strongman at arm wrestling—or at least grab and move boxes around a warehouse, unlike today’s mostly static factory arms or Amazon.com’s (AMZN) small shelf-fetching robots. Allied Market Research estimates there’s a $10 billion market for industrial robots that can handle materials better than humans. Pneubotics’ chief executive officer and co-founder, Kevin Albert, says the startup forecasts a similar-size market in manufacturing jobs for which traditional robots are too heavy or costly.
Griffith, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ph.D. who received a MacArthur genius grant in 2007, founded Pneubotics last year with Albert and with funding from Darpa and Otherlab, an R&D incubator Griffith also runs. Last month the company of six full-time workers began selling its robot arms to research labs. Its engineers are also working on modeling software Albert says could be sold to businesses. Separately, Griffith says, he’s recruited four engineers to develop clothes that can amplify a wearer’s natural strength. Backed by a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the design could lead to a softer, wearable exoskeleton, a step beyond the bulky walking forklift Sigourney Weaver wore in Aliens.
In September, the two-year-old Boston startup Empire Robotics plans to start shipping the Versaball Gripper, a soft gripping attachment for steel robot arms. Versaball was developed at Cornell University and the University of Chicago with Darpa money. Empire’s beanbag-like attachment for robotic arms consists of a balloonlike bag of grainy matter that contours to the shape of whatever object the arm is trying to pick up and can clench without crushing. Physicists call this the jamming transition; think vacuum-packed bags of coffee that remain hard as a rock until you break the seal. The attachment is “very simple and doesn’t even have any electronic components,” says Empire’s research and development director, Nadia Cheng, who’s also testing the gripper as a prosthetic hand. Empire secured about $2 million in private angel investment and National Science Foundation small business grants over the past year.
Eventually robots may be able to switch fluidly between harder and softer states. In July, Cheng and MIT mechanical engineering professor Anette Hosoi published research on a “squishy robot” material of wax and foam that can do just that to create a soft mechanical joint. They say it could help robots perform search-and-rescue operations. If engineers can give them brains as well as brawn, soft robots may find their way into our homes, too. “Children could ride them,” Griffith says with a grin, though he acknowledges that a multipurpose home robot is still “a long way off.”