Embodied Intelligence, Manipulation, and Locomotion

The current soft robotics projects in which we are involved are listed below:

Soft Robots and ROS
Using Voice Coils to Actuate Modular Soft Robots
Pneumatically Actuated Soft Robots
The Edinburgh Robotics and Autonomous Systems CDT, and Robotarium
Miniature Model of Animal Learning (MINIMAL)
The Robosoft Coordination Action

The Integration of Soft Robotics

Despite the inherent advantages of some soft robotic components the adoption rate has been low within academia and industry. Much of the delay can be attributed to the dissimilarity between conventional and soft robotics leading to a large amount of code and components needing to be made from scratch. There is an ongoing project within the group working on lowering this barrier to entry by releasing open source software and hardware for use by the wider robotics community. Our software uses the Robotic Operating System (ROS) as it provides an excellent modular framework and is already used on many conventional robots. Our hardware is designed to be low cost and modular, and provide both a fully functional platform and easy to integrate components. You can download the most recent version of our software and hardware designs here. A poster on the subject was presented at the 2016 JSPS/EPSRC UK-Japan Workshop on Bio-Inspired Soft Robotics in Cambridge.

More information on ROS can be found here.

Using Voice Coils to Actuate Modular Soft Robots

In this study, we present a modular worm-like robot, which utilizes voice coils as a new paradigm in soft robot actuation. Drive electronics are incorporated into the actuators, providing a significant improvement in self-sufficiency when compared with existing soft robot actuation modes such as pneumatics or hydraulics. The body plan of this robot is inspired by the phylum Annelida and consists of three-dimensional printed voice coil actuators, which are connected by flexible silicone membranes. Each electromagnetic actuator engages with its neighbor to compress or extend the membrane of each segment, and the sequence in which they are actuated results in an earthworm-inspired peristaltic motion. We find that a minimum of three segments is required for locomotion, but due to our modular design, robots of any length can be quickly and easily assembled. In addition to actuation, voice coils provide audio input and output capabilities. We demonstrate transmission of data between segments by high-frequency carrier waves and, using a similar mechanism, we note that the passing of power between coupled coils in neighboring modules—or from an external power source—is also possible. Voice coils are a convenient multifunctional alternative to existing soft robot actuators. Their self-contained nature and ability to communicate with each other are ideal for modular robotics, and the additional functionality of sound input/output and power transfer will become increasingly useful as soft robots begin the transition from early proof-of-concept systems toward fully functional and highly integrated robotic systems.
Links to the publications are here.

Pneumatically Actuated Soft Robots

Soft systems represent a new way of thinking about robotics. They represent a change in thinking about the traditional fabrication methods, and materials, used in the manufacture of electromechanical tools and devices. Soft systems have the following characteristics: i) they are inherently compliant, ii) they exhibit non-linear dynamics, and iii) they can be manufactured at low-cost.

References to Dr Stokes's work with colleagues and collaborators in the George M. Whitesides group at Harvard in the field of soft-robotics is shown in the video below, and our publications are provided here.

More information on our work on soft machines is provided by these articles:
Technology: Tools from scratch - Nature
Soft Robots for Hard Problems - IEEE Spectrum
Soft Robots Jump Higher, React Faster - Harvard Crimson
Robot Mimics Squid Movement - Harvard Crimson

The Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, CDT, and Robotarium

Robots have the potential to revolutionise the world's economy and society over the next twenty years, working for us, beside us and interacting with us. The robotics and autonomous systems area has been highlighted by the UK Government in 2013 as one the 8 Great Technologies that underpin the UK's Industrial Strategy for jobs and growth. The UK urgently needs graduates with the technical skills and industry awareness to create an innovation pipeline from academic research to global markets, in application areas including manufacturing, assistive and medical robots, offshore energy, environmental monitoring, search and rescue, defence, and support for the ageing population, amounting to a market space worth € 15.5 billion globally. Heriot-Watt University (Engineering and Physical Sciences, Mathematical and Computer Sciences) and the University of Edinburgh (Informatics, Engineering) are jointly offering an innovative 4 year PhD training programme, drawing on our long standing record of postgraduate education in the robotics and autonomous systems area, and research supervision drawing on our established background in all of the above mentioned areas. This will provide individually tailored course and project portfolios during the first year of the programme, ensuring that all students will have a strong grounding in current theory, methods and applications, with flexibility for strategic individualised study, and strong support leading to a specialised PhD project in subsequent years. A key focus of our Centre is to produce innovation-ready graduates - who can not only make fundamental advances in the theory and development of robotics technology, but also have the skills to take these advances through to achieving impact in the form of new products and new companies. Moreover, the course will develop teamwork and presentation skills and give students a broad appreciation of the ethical issues assoicted with the RAS area.

Information on the EDU-RAS CDT and Robotarium is provided here.

Miniature Model of Animal Learning (MINIMAL)

One of our current projects involves studying the learning behaviour of Larval Drosophila, and taking inspiration from this knowledge to inform the design of next-generation Integrated Soft Robotic Systems. Our vision is that small, simple low-power computational devices could be given non-trivial adaptive and learning capacities. We are inspired by animals with miniature brains, specifically the Drosophila larva with c.10,000 neurons, that exhibit rapid autonomous acquisition of associations between relevant stimuli in a complex and variable environment. These "simple" animals can learn arbitrary associations of stimuli with punishment and reward, and behave in an anticipatory fashion in their decisions to approach or avoid learnt stimuli in different contexts. Translated into robotics, we imagine distributed devices that individually detect important regularities between sensory events, and are thus able to act adaptively to exploit natural signals in scenarios such as tracking, search, escape and exploration.

The MINIMAL project, lead by Professor Barbara Webb, and involving partners from across Europe is described here.

The Robosoft Coordination Action

Soft robotics, intended as the use of soft materials in robotics, is a young research field, going to overcome the basic assumptions of conventional rigid robotics and its solid theories and techniques, developed over the last 50 years. Using soft materials to apply forces on the environment, as expected in a soft robot able to locomote, grasp, and perform other tasks, poses new problems at the level of the different components as well as at the whole system level. The technologies for actuating the soft materials have not yet been demonstrated to exist in a general form, although specific effective examples exists. The same is true for sensors embedded in the soft materials and for soft robotic energy suppliers. A Coordination Action for Soft Robotics is extremely necessary and timely in the current and future landscape of robotics and biorobotics and can capitalize on the competitiveness of European research in this new field. A common forum will help soft robotics researchers to combine their efforts, to maximize the opportunities and to materialize the huge potential impact. RoboSoft will create this missing framework for the soft robotics scientists, regardless of their background disciplines, and will enable the accumulation and sharing of the crucial knowledge needed for scientific progress in this field. RoboSoft will not only create and consolidate the soft robotics community, but will also create assets that go beyond the end of the three-year CA.

The Robosoft Coordination Action, involving partners from across Europe is described here.