In April 2022, the University of Edinburgh will be hosting Robosoft 2022, an international conference on soft robotics, which invites colleagues from across the globe to share research and explore new avenues of work.
Dr Adam Stokes, who is currently a Reader within the Institute of Integrated Micro & Nano Systems, at the University’s School of Engineering, is based in the Scottish Microelectronic Centre at King’s Buildings. Adam leads the large team of School of Engineering staff and students who are organising this year’s Robosoft 2022 conference, as well as being the co-host for this event. His research is in biologically inspired engineering: “We seek to explore and understand natural systems, and to abstract our understanding to provide novel solutions to pressing industrial and societal challenges.”
Adam uses his expertise in soft robotics. He explains how this work differs in its construction from typical robotics: “Soft robotics is an exciting new field which seeks to draw inspiration from natural systems to develop robotic solutions that are explicitly designed for interaction tasks, and which use embodied or physical intelligence in combination with artificial intelligence.”
Robosoft 2022, will be the fifth event of this type to be held. It is currently the only global conference that looks specifically at soft robotics – machines made of elastic and compliant materials with the ability to morphologically, and behaviourally adapt to unstructured environments.
Since the first conference in Italy in 2016, Robosoft’s in-person events have usually attracted around 300 delegates. This will be the first time that the University of Edinburgh has been host to this event, which will have a hybrid format.
Adam shares more: “We will be welcoming the international community to our hybrid online and in-person event in Edinburgh this April. The conference will be a showcase of work in the field and will span from fundamental academic research to applied engineering.”
The theme this year is Soft Robots for the Planet. Adam explains how this field has huge potential to help with sustainability issues across the world: “The community recognises that robotics can be used to solve important societal and global problems. We seek to explore how the technologies and methodologies used in soft robotics can design systems that can contribute to challenges in sustainability, in agriculture, and in healthcare – to name a few. Soft robots are designed for interaction tasks, so that could be in soft-fruit picking, in waste segregation, or in human-robot interaction tasks for healthcare. We aim to explore how robots can be part of the solution to pressing challenges facing our planet.”
For Adam, this conference is an important opportunity to reconnect with the soft robotics community: “I’m looking forward to the global community coming together, both in person for those who are able to travel, and online for those who wish to join remotely. This is the first true-hybrid robotics conference and it opens up a new way of communication and dissemination, which can involve a much larger community, with a much lower carbon footprint.”
The field of soft robotics incorporates a large number of subjects, as Adam found himself.
For him, it’s the multidisciplinary aspects of this work that make this field so interesting: “This discipline bridges from scientific enquiry to engineering implementation. We explore, abstract, design, build, test, and learn. The soft robotics community is challenging the notion of what robotics is, how robotics are controlled, and the materials from which robots are made.”
Areas where this is especially useful are in healthcare, in hazardous environments, and in Agritech. Adam elaborates: “We worked on an extraordinarily interesting project in the area of Nuclear Decommissioning, where, alongside industrial and academic partners, we designed, built, and tested a fundamentally different and novel robotic system for nuclear waste management. This system incorporated: inspiration from crystalline materials, control from microfluidics but scaled up to be used in industrial hydraulics, and the complex interplay of commercial and academic partners in the second largest InnovateUK project ever funded.”
Soft robotics are increasingly making their way into other applications and environments. On modern production, assembly and packaging lines, for example, a soft robotics ‘hand’ is able to adapt to, grab and manipulate objects of a wider variety of sizes and shapes than conventional robotics. Even fragile and delicate items can be handled with less risk of damaging or dropping them.
Due to its collaborative nature, this field is constantly changing. The fast-pace is something Adam particularly enjoys: “Some recent advances in the field are exploring bio-hybrid robots, the synthesis of engineered biology alongside electrical and mechanical engineering. This area is fascinating as it is exploring how to use biological materials to build synthetic systems, and also by building these systems, it enables scientists to ask fundamental questions about how natural biological systems work.”
This area of research is only going to continue to grow. Adam stresses that it’s a field that everyone can contribute to: “Soft Robotics and Biologically Inspired Engineering have something for everyone, these are truly interdisciplinary areas of research which require contributions from every part of the university. If we accept that robots are going to become a larger part of our everyday lives in the future, then we need to explore everything from materials, to interaction tasks, to business models and more.
“The Soft Robotics community is inclusive and growing, and challenges the very notions of what we know robots to be, and for what we imagine them to be used.”
Images: Paul Dodds; Stewart Atwood; GettyImages