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Domo arigato

Bots, britches, and bees

When you hear the word “robot” what comes to mind? Probably a metal, humanoid machine—something like C-3PO from Star Wars, Rosie the Robot Maid from The Jetsons, or perhaps one of the menacing Terminator robots.

At a Harvard University lab, I saw some surprising inventions that challenge our popular images of robots. One robot I wore like a glove. Another you could pull on like a pair of pants. Some robots had spongy arms that could pick up the most delicate objects. And others were so tiny and light they could take to the air on paper-thin wings, like insects.

These incredible creations are powerful examples of the exciting innovation underway in the field of robotics. They were also a reminder that while science fiction writers may lead us to fear a future of Terminator-style robots, robotics discoveries have far greater potential to improve our lives. They could offer physical support and assistance, help with search and rescue efforts, and meet medical and other technological challenges.

Stepping inside of the lab of Dr. Conor Walsh, founder of Harvard’s Biodesign Lab, I met a researcher wearing a pair of robotic britches walking on a treadmill. The britches are part of an exosuit developed by Conor and his team to help restore movement for people with spinal cord injuries or movement disorders due to a stroke or disease. And for healthy people, the exosuits could help ease the physical burdens experienced by firefighters, factory workers, and soldiers.

While rigid exoskeletons have been available for many years to serve these same functions, what’s different about this exosuit is that it’s soft. Bringing together researchers from engineering, industrial design, apparel, and medical fields, Conor and his team developed specially designed clothing that enhances performance while also being light enough that it won’t tire out users.

Another of Conor’s inventions is a soft robotic glove, which he invited me to try on. The black glove was supported with pneumatic tubes which gently assisted me with my grip as a I tried to pick up a coffee mug. This technology could be a life changer for people disabled because of a stroke or disease, allowing them to perform basic tasks like eating, drinking, and even writing.

I also met with Dr. Robert Wood, founder of the Harvard Microrobotics Lab. His team focuses on bio-inspired robots. His best-known invention is the RoboBee, a flying microbot that’s half the size of a paper clip and weighs less than one tenth of a gram. Some models of the RoboBee are able to transition from swimming underwater to flying in the air. They’re also working on ways for swarms of RoboBees to communicate with one another and coordinate their movements.

To be sure, it’s easy to imagine how such a small and potentially stealthy invention might be used for nefarious purposes. Robert’s team, however, envisions a future where flying microbots could play a beneficial role in agriculture, search and rescue missions, surveillance, and climate monitoring. Their research will also likely have applications to other fields. For example, the technologies developed to manufacture such small robots could be used in the medical field to make small surgical devices for endoscopic procedures.

Before any of these benefits can be realized, Robert’s team must solve some tough technical challenges. One key problem is how to power a small flying robot. Currently, each RoboBee is tethered to a thin wire hooked up to a power source. The goal is to find a way to have onboard power so each RoboBee can be autonomous. A battery that small and light is not yet available, so they are exploring ways to make their own.

Another amazing area of Robert’s research is soft robotics. His team wants to create a new type of robot that is entirely soft—with no rigid components like batteries or electronic systems. Their first creation is a 3D-printed robot—nicknamed the Octobot—which is soft, autonomous, and chemically powered. They also recently developed a soft robotic arm for use in deep-sea research. Up until now, the robotic arms on research submarines have been made of hard materials that lack the dexterity to grasp jellyfish and other fragile sea life. The new soft arms will allow underwater researchers to gently pick up delicate aquatic creatures without damaging them.

It was exciting to see the research underway at both these Harvard labs and speak with the many young students drawn to robotics. I have no doubt we’ll all be hearing more amazing discoveries from them in the years ahead. I left eager to learn more about the rapidly growing field of robotics research.

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