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Animations inspire real-time simulation of soft robots

Image credit: Kittipong Jirasukhanont | Dreamstime

Researchers have adapted graphics technology used to create motion picture animations and video games to simulate the movements of soft, limbed robots.

The engineers, from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, said they have achieved faster than real-time simulation of soft robots, with the project being a “major step” toward such robots that are autonomous and can plan out actions on their own.

“Soft robots are made of flexible material which makes them intrinsically resilient against damage and potentially much safer in interaction with humans,” said Khalid Jawed, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. Prior to this study, predicting the motion of these robots has been challenging because they change shape during operation.”

Movies often use an algorithm named discrete elastic rods (DER) to animate free-flowing objects which can predict hundreds of movements in less than a second. The researchers set out to create a physics engine using DER that could simulate the movements of bio-inspired robots and robots in challenging environments, such as the surface of Mars or underwater.

Another algorithm-based technology, finite elemental method (FEM), can simulate the movements of solid and rigid robots, but it is not well-suited to tackle the intricacies of soft, natural movements, the collaborators said. It also requires significant time and computational power.

Sequence of a simulation showing a soft robot with seven flexible limbs planning its forward motion. Technology developed by UCLA and Carnegie Mellon researchers

Sequence of a simulation showing a soft robot with seven flexible limbs planning its forward motion.

Image credit: Khalid Jawed/UCLA

Roboticists have largely been using a painstaking trial-and-error process for investigating the dynamics of soft material systems and the design and control of soft robots. The researchers on this project, however, are trying to steer away from this issue.

“Robots made out of hard and inflexible materials are relatively easy to model using existing computer simulation tools,” said Carmel Majidi, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering. “Until now, there haven’t been good software tools to simulate robots that are soft and squishy.”

According to Majidi, their work is one of the first to demonstrate how soft robots can be successfully simulated using the same computer graphics software that has been used to model hair and fabrics in blockbuster films and animated movies.

The researchers started working together in Majidi’s Soft Machines Lab more than three years ago. Continuing their collaboration on this latest work, Jawed ran the simulations in his research lab at UCLA while Majidi performed the physical experiments that validated the simulation results.

“Experimental advances in soft-robotics have been outpacing theory for several years,” said Dr Samuel Stanton, a programme manager with the Army Research Office, which funded part of the project. “This effort is a significant step in our ability to predict and design for dynamics and control in highly deformable robots operating in confined spaces with complex contacts and constantly changing environments.”

The researchers are currently working to apply this technology to other kinds of soft robots, including ones inspired by the movements of bacteria and starfish. Such swimming robots could be fully untethered and used in oceanography to monitor seawater conditions or inspect the status of fragile marine life, the duo said.

The researchers added that the new simulation tool can significantly reduce the time it takes to bring a soft robot from drawing board to application. While robots are still very far from matching the efficiency and capabilities of natural systems, computer simulations can help to reduce this gap, they said.

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