This project will create knowledge to realize a new class of active soft robots that can dynamically evolve three-dimensional soft protuberances from a nominally planar surface. These moving shapes will be capable of gently and safely positioning and manipulating heavy but delicate objects that are resting on the surface. Soft robots are ideal for interactions with humans because they safely deform upon contact, much as biological soft tissue does. This project will enable active soft robotic surfaces able to track and manipulate human-sized objects in three-dimensional space without high contact forces. In 2018 patient handling injuries accounted for 25% of healthcare-related worker's comp claims and back injuries to workers cost the US healthcare industry $8.6 billion. The results of this project will advance the goal of assisting the safe and comfortable handling of patients, to enhance the quality of healthcare and reduce injuries in the nursing workforce. By preventing injury and reducing nurses' work load this project will address the grand challenge of providing care to our aging population. The project will promote an educational program to build the cross-disciplinary literacy of engineering and nursing students, by giving each experience in the other?s work domain and deepening their understanding of current healthcare capabilities and challenges.
This research project will make fundamental advances to soft robotic capabilities through three innovations: 1. electrically addressable polymers that modulate the stiffness of inflated elastomers, 2. real-time shape sensing, contact detection, and shape prediction using Gaussian curvature, and 3. a hierarchical control policy that, rather than attempting precise control of the deformable robot, achieves desired motion of the manipulated object through contact points. This project builds from strengths of the assembled team to overcome fundamental challenges in soft robotics research, including shape-controlled actuation with high strain and large forces, soft robotic sensing and proprioception, modeling and estimating the infinite dimensional state of stretchable materials while interacting with external objects, and control strategies to manipulate external objects with continuous, compliant, and re-configurable elastomeric surfaces.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.