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NSF's Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Continuum Grant

Matthew Spenko and Ankit Srivastava of the MMAE Department, in conjunction with Heinrich Jaeger and Arvind Murugan of the Physics Department at the University of Chicago have been awarded a $2,000,000 four-year grant as part of the NSF's Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) Continuum, Compliant, and Configurable Soft Robotics Engineering (C3 SoRo) program. This project will develop the framework to understand the modeling, sensing, control, design, and fabrication of a new class of soft robots. Most soft robots eschew the rigid links of traditional robots in favor of compliant structures. In contrast, the robot designed in this work has its "softness" emerge from the interactions among granular material encased in an flexible membrane. The concept is best visualized by considering an amoeba, in which an outer membrane loosely encapsulates a set of internal components. By allowing components on the periphery of the membrane to be active "sub-robots," much like the cilia on the periphery of a paramecium, the overall structure can move and deform like a boundary-constrained robotic swarm. Moreover, to manipulate objects and exert large forces on the environment, the robot will also have the unique ability to jam. Jamming occurs when particles become packed so closely that instead of flowing past each other (like coffee grounds in a can) they form a solid (like coffee grounds in a vacuum-packed bag). The results of this work may offer several advantages over traditional robots, including the ability to better conform to objects, physically interact with other soft structures such as animal tissue, and locomote in unstructured environments. This could impact several national needs, including providing inherently safe robots that work with or alongside humans to greatly improve US manufacturing competitiveness.

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