Robots Find Inspiration in Nature at Cornell’s Organic Robotics Lab

January 27, 2016
John Quinn

If you think of a robot, you’re probably picturing C-3PO, Ultron or Wall-E. But what if robots don’t need to be big, humanoid and upright? What if they aren’t even made of metal?

The Organic Robotics Lab in Kimball Hall, headed by Prof. Robert Shepherd, mechanical and aerospace engineering, focuses on creating such robots. They use soft materials to replicate movement and functions from organisms already found in nature.

“We make new types of actuators — things that move; and we make new types of sensors — things that feel; and new types of manufacturing processes that integrate the two in ways that is not done in traditional robotics,” Shepherd said.

After getting some exposure to robotics at Harvard, Shepherd realized that robots could be made from new materials, for him, rubber did the trick. Rubber is flexible and moldable, hence offers a world of potential.

“If we can use rubbers to make robots, we can use liquid state processing on them,” he said, “So we can cast parts instead of having to machine them, and we can more quickly make robots that can do more things.”

Using organic materials instead of metal to build robots has two advantages. First, they can be processed in the liquid state, and so can be molded as required. And second, because they are carbon-based materials, they have mechanical properties of natural organisms.

And so now, animals can inspire new robots. While replicating complex animals like an octopus is still a challenge, replicating simpler life forms is a definite possibility, according to Shepherd.

“We can start working simply and then once we develop more intricate manufacturing processes and better materials we can move up to more sophisticated life forms,” Shepherd said.

Effective application of the lab’s research can produce life-changing results. For example, the foam heart actuator developed in the lab can pump a higher rate of fluid than any other soft artificial hearts. Though creating an actual artificial heart for humans is likely decades away for the lab, there are several other current projects within reach.

“There’s no approval for testing on real animal models or anything, so we can’t use that [3-D heart actuator] today. What we could do is make prosthetics for people who’ve lost a limb or hand,” Shepherd said. “We’re working on orthotics – wearable actuators that could help with motion, or help retrain stroke patients.”

To read the rest of this article, published in the Cornell Daily Star, please click here.