Muscle-mimicking soft robots may help rehabilitate stroke victims

When we think of robots, we tend to think of big, industrial, metal machines. These may be ideal for tasks like manufacturing but they don’t do well when a gentler touch is needed. That’s where soft robots come in. These squishy, light, and flexible machines are generally safer and more compliant, making them perfect for situations that require close contact with humans and adaptability.

A team of researchers at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab (RRL) is hard at work developing an array of soft robots that may help in tasks like rehabilitation, home care, and search and rescue.

“Our robot designs focus largely on safety,” Jamie Paik, the director of the RRL, said in a press release. “There’s very little risk of getting hurt if you’re wearing an exoskeleton made up of soft materials, for example.”

The soft robots developed at RRL are designed to mimic human muscles, using actuators for movement, and elastomers like silicon and rubber to make them soft to the touch. In simulations, the robots have been shown to stretch up to six times their initial length and bend in two directions.

In the real world, the researchers have used their soft robots to create medical devices such as a wearable belts to help stroke patients maintain good posture and movement during rehabilitation exercises. The prototype device needs to be connected to external pumps but, in the future, the engineers hope to scale the system down to fit right on the belt.

“We are working with physical therapists from the University Hospital of Lausanne (CHUV) who are treating stroke victims,” said Matthew Robertson, the researcher in charge of the project. “The belt is designed to support the patient’s torso and restore some of the person’s motor sensitivity.”

Since they can be squeezed and crushed but still maintain their shape, soft robots are also being considered for tasks that require navigating tight spaces, such as searching through rubble after natural disasters.

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