Do me a favor: close your eyes for a few seconds and think of a robot, any robot, real or imaginary.
Done? Good. Now, that robot you thought about, what did it look like? What did it do? What was it made of? The answers to the first two questions will likely be different from person to person: perhaps a utilitarian, cylindrical robot that helps with menial tasks like cleaning and homework, or a humanoid robot, hell-bent on crushing, killing, and/or destroying humans. I’m willing to bet, however, that the majority of the answers to the last question is one word: “metal”.
Most of our images of robots, droids, and automatons (i.e. R2-D2, The Cybermen, or Wall-E), including robots that we encounter in day to day life, are made of metal, but that might change in the future. The future of robotics is not simply to make robots harder, better, faster, or stronger, but also softer. For robots that must interact with humans and other living or delicate things, they must have the capacity to be gentile.
Researchers like Samantha Hemleben are beginning to explore the world of soft robotics, creating robots that are made out of soft materials, acting through changes in air pressure. These robots could be used for tasks where a light touch is needed to avoid bruising such as human contact or fruit picking. Currently, the technology to create soft robots involves making a 3D-printed mold and then casting the silicone robot parts in those molds. If you need a robot that has both soft and firm parts, it must be designed in separate steps, reducing efficiency and effectiveness.
This is where Samantha comes in; she’s trying to optimize this process. When she started her undergrad at Wofford College, she tried out Biology, Pharmacy, and Finance, but didn’t feel challenged by them. Switching to mathematics with a computer science emphasis allowed her creativity to flourish and she was able to secure a Research Experience for Undergraduates here at OSU, modeling a robot that mimics the movements of jumping spiders. This experience heavily influenced her decision to get her Ph. D. at OSU.
Samantha is now a 2nd year Ph. D. student of Drs. Cindy Grimm and Yiğit Mengüç in Robotics (School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering). Her research is focused on trying to understand the gradient between hard and soft materials. That is, she’s creating mathematical models of this gradient so that the manufacturing process can be optimized, and soft robots will be able to stand on solid ground.
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