The future of robotics is soft and modular, or at least that’s they way some of the robotics gurus at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne envision things moving. Rigid robots are fine, but true versatility in the robotic medium will come from modular robots that are flexible enough in form that they can adapt to task and environment. So a team at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS) there is developing connections for soft, floating robots that would allow many small, squishy robots to organize themselves into a larger softbot through electroadhesion.
Soft robotics is, relative to conventional robotics, a very young research discipline. But if the soft modular future is ever going to get here, we first need to find a way for soft robots to connect and communicate with one another. To create the necessary means, the EPFL team has created a connection mechanism that uses electroadhesion–that is, using voltages to create a charge difference between two surfaces, causing them to attract each other–to bring soft robotics modules together. These connections allow for a decent tolerance for misalignment and easy coupling or decoupling, with the ultimate goal being a robot that somewhat resembles the artistic rendering above: soft, squishy, and the sum of many parts.
Right now the modules look more like inflated sandwich bags. Or maybe faux jellyfish. But the connections seem to work just fine. Next up the team actually wants to make their soft modules more robotic by adding active deformation (basically controlled shape shifting) and sensor technology to the mix.