Technology advancement has a profound and far-reaching impact on society, now permeating all aspects of life. However, this progress has a negative impact on our ecosystems by increasing energy demands, contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, deforestation, and environmental pollution.
Mitigating these negative consequences is one of the great challenges of our time. It strongly incentivizes pushing the research frontier in sustainable materials and robotics to meet some of our long-term development goals.
Soft robotics has advantages over traditional robotics, making it well-suited to achieving these objectives. These robots can be used for monitoring and restoring complex environments, providing early warning systems for urban areas, and collecting information about changes in biodiversity and animal behavior by leveraging their flexibility, agility, biocompatibility/degradability, (re)-programmability of soft materials, and physical and embodied intelligence (EI).
They can also imitate the movement and behavior of different animals and plants. They can be used for pollination, seed dispersal, and soil aeration in difficult-to-reach areas for regeneration and restoration.
There are promising examples of soft robots used in real-world applications to address major challenges. In this post, we will look at some of the most important applications of soft robotics in dealing with global challenges and environmental degradation.
1. Soft robotics for urban farming
By carefully sowing and harvesting crops in urban areas, encouraging sustainable consumption, keeping an eye on the health of the crops, and providing safe food, soft robots can increase food security and lower poverty. Additionally, it can boost urban economic development by generating jobs and lowering the carbon footprint of the food system and farming. Researchers used a robotic crop harvester as a striking illustration of a soft robotic digital twin that could harvest raspberries and handle lettuce without harming the vegetable. Although traditional robotics can also advance agricultural technology, soft grippers are more robust and versatile because they can deform, adapt, and be easily controlled when coming into contact with the outside world.
2. Soft robotics for ocean preservation
Cleaning, protecting, preserving, and repairing marine biodiversity and ocean health, promoting sustainable use of ocean resources, and understanding the impact of climate change on oceans can all play a significant role. Soft materials and locomotion methods inspired by ocean-dwelling animals are being explored in the soft robotics community to safely gather data and study aquatic life without disrupting the delicate ecosystem. For example, researchers presented a soft robotic fish species equipped with cameras and remotely operated, intending to outperform traditional underwater vehicles.
3. Soft robotics for disaster response
Soft robots can be used for search and rescue missions following natural disasters, promoting safety and mitigating the effects of natural disasters, providing timely assistance to affected populations, rebuilding and repairing infrastructure, and improving transportation and communication networks. For example, using onboard sensing of environmental stimuli, researchers proposed a soft pneumatic robot that can grow in length and dynamically adapt its shape to different terrains, including crossing small cracks.
4. Soft robotics for energy production
The incorporation of renewable energy sources into soft robotics bodies has the potential to revolutionize energy production. Although difficult, this integration has the potential to significantly advance research for clean, versatile, and accessible energy production in almost every location. One notable example is the study of plant-hybrid wind energy systems inspired by living plant leaves. These systems convert natural mechanical stimuli, such as wind or self-touching of leaves, into electrical signals, opening up the possibility of new, widely distributed energy sources.
5. Soft robotics for healthcare
Soft robotic exosuits, wearables, and manipulators can help with physical therapy and minimally invasive surgery (MIS), improving the mobility and independence of people with disabilities and shortening the recovery time for patients. In the case of MIS, researchers created submillimeter-diameter, hydraulically actuated devices to allow microcatheter tips to be actively steerable. They demonstrated in vivo guidewire-free navigation, access, and coil deployment, providing safety and simplicity in endovascular intervention.