This article is published in the August 2017 issue.

Material Robotics (MaRo) Workshop at 2017 Robotics Science and Systems (RSS)


Contributions to this post were made by Yigit Menguc from Oregon State University.

The Computing Community Consortium (CCC) recently sponsored a workshop at the 2017 Robotics Science and Systems Conference called Material Robotics (MaRo).

The goal of the workshop was to bring together researchers in robotics and materials science to learn from each other and identify the research challenges and applications of robotic materials.

The original vision of a “robot” introduced by playwright Karel Čapek in 1920 was that of an autonomous machine molded in the image of humans. Interestingly, the play begins with a discussion of the materials that make up the robots and introduces the techniques used to spin and extrude such materials into synthetic body parts. Apparently, it was intuitive to imagine robots not just in our image but also from the same kind of active squishy materials. Considering robots as closely influenced by and contributing to the study of materials can make this vision a reality.

Robotic materials are a new class of multifunctional composites that tightly integrate sensing, actuation, computation, and communication. Material robots are a new class of autonomous machines that exploit material properties to extend and expand normal robotic operations. The convergence of the two approaches results in such capabilities as changing appearance, stiffness or shape in response to the environment while performing large-scale distributed computation right where the signals are generated and control is needed.

The keynote talks from Prof. George Whitesides (Harvard) and Dr. Tom McKenna (Office of Naval Research) highlighted the potential impact of simple machines that embed computation directly into the soft morphology of the device. The discussions by the workshop participants explored the need for standards in the nascent field but ultimately rejected the constraints imposed by standardization. Instead of directly comparing successes with established technologies of “hard” robotics, the young field of “soft” material robotics will be well served with a pragmatic view of marketability – where the markets are determined by immediate potential impact on human society. The first clear examples of impacts that can be seen emerging from the field are in food handling, elder care, and marine robotics. Other areas of impact are sure to follow.

For more information, please see the workshop website.