Engineers and nurses team up to build inflatable robots

Penn Engineering and Penn Nursing’s collaboration in this new area of “soft robotics” is critical for designing machines that can safely interact with people.

In recent years, there have been massive advances in the world of “hard” robotics—robots that are made from hard plastics and metals. These robots are excellent for industrial jobs because they are precise, strong, and well-equipped for strenuous labor. It’s a smart solution for factories and warehouses, but what about jobs where humans are more integral to the work itself, such as nursing or healthcare? If researchers could develop robots that interact with humans as carefully as humans interact with one another, they could be used in a variety of fields to improve daily life in radical new ways. This is where soft robotics comes in. 

A soft robot mimicking octopus skin, to develop the basis for a new type of soft robot.
Pikul and collaborators at Cornell took inspiration from octopus skin, which changes its texture to mimic rough surfaces, to develop the basis for a new type of soft robot. Pikul and colleagues at Penn are now looking at how such systems could be used to help move patients in healthcare settings. (Image: J. H. Pikul et al. Science 2017)

James Pikul, assistant professor in mechanical engineering and applied mechanics, studies soft robotics, an emerging field that seeks to build robots that can safely handle more delicate and fragile objects. These robots must incorporate materials that deform under pressure, reducing the chances of crushing, pinching or otherwise hurting the equally soft things they interact with, such as human bodies.

In 2019, Pikul and his team received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore a new type of soft robotics that don’t conform to the common conception of robots at all. These soft robots start as flat sheets, then transform into precise shapes to perform tasks. Their goal: to create an inflatable robotic mat to be placed on top of hospital beds and used to move patients. This application has the potential to increase patient comfort and decrease injuries to nurses and healthcare workers that can be caused by patient handling.

Read more at Penn Engineering.