Soft robots increase robot safety

The development of soft robots has advanced rapidly in the past decade or so, and this field is now attracting a lot of attention.

Soft robots are those made of soft materials, in contrast to traditional robots that are made of metal and are hard.

For instance, industrial robot arms are machines which function like human arms, but they are, so to say, bare skeletons made of metal. They move with electric motors instead of muscles.

However, what is being aimed for with soft robots is, for example, a form like that of a human being covered by flesh or movements like that of an octopus and jelly fish with their boneless, soft bodies.

So, why do we need to make soft robots? Because there is the expectation that it will make possible some things that were difficult for hard robots.

Presently, industrial robots are very active in factories, etc. This is because they can work quickly, strongly, and precisely for assembly and welding in manufacturing and significantly increase productivity. In that sense, industrial robots are now indispensable.

On the other hand, in fact, they can be dangerous. For example, if a person bumps into an operating robot arm, they could be severely injured. Therefore, basically, an operating robot is arranged in such a way that people cannot approach it.

So, in reality, it is difficult for people to work together in close proximity with a robot or immediately support the robot if a malfunction occurs.

This means that tasks for which robots can be relied on are limited to those that can be completed by robots on their own.

However, there are many unexpected tasks that can be done by people but are difficult for robots.

For example, the task of filling a lunchbox with food cannot be done by robots, so it is done by people. This is because food, with different sizes and firmness, need to be handled so that they will not be squashed and placed in such a way that they look delicious.

For example, to handle a fluffy omelet so that the robot will not break it, we need to have a robot hand dedicated to that purpose. But perhaps such hands will not be able to handle other food well.

In fact, people can handle all different kinds of food well because the fingers are soft. This is a significant factor.

Actually, performance can be improved by attaching a softer material to the surface of a hard robot hand. Such case is one of the triggers which brought attention to soft robots.

However, it is still difficult for robots alone to pack food quickly and deliciously, and human support is needed.

In other words, in order to make a tasty-looking lunchbox while minimizing human work force, people and robots need to work closely together. To do this, it is important to make the entire robot soft, not only its hands.

Soft robots generate emotional values

I also think that soft robots can engage not only in the production of goods but also in well-being and care.

For example, there is a 3DCG animated film entitled Big Hero 6, which was released several years ago. The robot Baymax in the film is a good example of a robot involved in well-being. The soft robot Baymax is concerned about people’s health conditions and can shake hands and hug. That heals people’s mind and body.

On the other hand, Baymax does not produce anything. In that sense, the word “robot” does not apply to Baymax as its meaning originated from the concept of an artificial worker.

However, Baymax generates emotional values through interaction with people. Traditionally, these values have been cultivated between a person and a person, or between a person and an animal. But this may become possible for robots too.

Then, softness will be a large factor for psychological safety and friendliness.

Moreover, soft robots may create the emotion of pleasure.

Of course, working machines have made human life more comfortable. But not only that, I believe that there can be machines that are fun to use.

For example, we make a light and soft smart mobility device called poimo. Poimo has been developed in various shapes and sizes, and the latest sofa type is designed with the image of running around town while sitting on a sofa.

The sofa-shaped poimo has a pillow-like controller to steer it. We are thinking of introducing a function in the future that would allow the poimo to move automatically simply by specifying the destination.

This sofa will wander around the streets and people can freely get on and off. It has the image of bike sharing or a scooter, but poimo is not speedy in moving.

It delivers pleasure and comfort, where people can sit on the fluffy sofa and spend their leisure time as they like, such as reading books and listening to music on the move.

What is important here is softness of appearance and touch. The rounded shape and soft feel will give you a feeling of comfort and relaxation. To realize such a feeling, poimo uses a balloon structure achieved by a special fabric.

Such an attempt could not be made using conventional hard robots. Surely hard robots will also develop further in the future. In the meantime, we believe that emerging soft robots will expand new possibilities for robots.

Soft robots will change the concept of society

Industrial robots are already indispensable, but we hardly see robots on the streets or at home.

The reasons for this are that robots are expensive and, as I mentioned previously, they are unexpectedly dangerous, and there are many things that they are not capable of. Soft robots have the possibility to overcome such obstacles.

Perhaps people have the stereotypical notion that the popularization of robots will take jobs away from people or, conversely, that people can live an easy life by letting robots do all the work. However, I think such notions are both different from how future robots will be, from my point of view as a robot researcher.

Although there is the aspect of robots taking over jobs that people currently have, as I previously mentioned, robot development based on the idea that people and robots would work together is also progressing.

That is also considered in the area of care and nursing. For example, soft robots can conduct heavy physical work such as lifting or moving a patient’s body, while people can concentrate on humane tasks, such as talking to patients and anticipate what they hope for, while monitoring the robot’s movement.

In fact, I hope that people will think that an entirely new way of thinking and value will be created, rather than imagining a world where robots interrupt the way people work and act today.

For example, poimo is not simply a replacement for a car or an electric bicycle. It is a portable vehicle that can be carried in a bag once it is deflated. Furthermore, if poimo could transform into a bed or a bathtub, it would transform the concept of a vehicle.

If a soft robot which is safe in case of a collision can be realized, we can expect to see robots in use throughout a city. It might become common for us to pass robots like poimo on the trains and pathways.

Through new robot technologies which will appear in the future, the anxiety and expectations towards robots will be betrayed in a good way. The people who use robots will also change. I hope you can imagine what kind of connections and relations will be developed grow among people through robots.

* The information contained herein is current as of January 2023.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.