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BYU professors receive shared $2M NSF grant for soft robotics research

soft robot king louie.jpeg

BYU Mechanical Engineering faculty Marc Killpack and BYU Computer Science faculty David Wingate have received a $2 million shared grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF Emerging Frontiers and Multidisciplinary Activities (EFMA) grant will be shared with the University of Tulsa faculty Michael Keller, Joshua Shultz and his biological robotics team.

BYU’s $800,000 portion of the grant will be used to continue research in the field of soft robotics. These soft robots, once fully developed, have the potential to aid in many situations, including crises such as disaster relief, and search and rescue, as their nature makes them much safer than hardware-based robots.

“What we’re looking at here is, can we make it so that robots can be safe to be around people, while still performing useful tasks,” said Killpack.

Soft robots have the potential to be useful in other situations as well, such as increased customization in manufacturing. In addition to research development, the project will improve the ability to control fabric-reinforced inflatable soft robots via computer, an area that has been difficult to maneuver.
According to the award-winning abstract (linked), soft robots have the capability to conform to different features, allowing more variance in ability to complete tasks such as entwining, folding, and fitting into small gaps or spaces. The materials used to make the robots also allow for a multitude of sensors to be molded in.

The abstract also explains that sensors provide great prospects in measuring touch, shapes, and even proximity. The elastomeric material also offers the opportunity to incorporate active materials, which can change their properties on command from a computer. Their research efforts will assist in developing concise models for the motions such as wrinkling, pleating, and buckling, which are difficult to represent using current techniques.

“The vision here is we hope this gets robots out of factories and cages and into people’s homes and lives. This isn’t ‘get rid of people’, it’s ‘can we facilitate and do some of the load-bearing work, then let people who are good at finishing work come through and finish it,’” said Killpack.

BYU and and the University of Tulsa’s combined efforts will come together to, ideally, develop soft robots in their entirety including dynamic modeling, machine learning, and algorithms for model-based control.

Students who are interested in getting involved should contact Marc Killpack (ME) or David Wingate (CS) directly.