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Xiaobo Tan (left) and Vaibhav Srivastava (right)

Xiaobo Tan, the MSU Foundation Professor and Richard M. Hong Endowed Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Vaibhav Srivastava, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are part of the team led by Zhaojian Li, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, that received a $1.5M NSF award to develop soft robot. Congratulations!

One goal of the work focuses on developing softer materials that will help robots navigate their surroundings more safely and effectively without sapping their strength. Another goal is building trust between robots and the humans they assist.

To understand how the team will do that, it’s helpful to look at where they’re starting from. Li has already been working with agricultural technical leader Renfu Lu of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for about 18 months building an apple-picking prototype. It’s a rigid and sturdy machine that plucks apples from trees using a tube-like appendage and suction. The next generation of robots will be more like octopuses with several softer arms that can grip independently of one another.  Robots will pick faster with more arms — the team plans to start with four limbs — and they’ll be able to squeeze through an orchard without harming trees or apples given their softer construction. 

Although the team plans to test and validate its robots with apple picking, other potential applications will also benefit from soft but strong arms. For example, in assisted living facilities, robots could help caregivers lift residents who have fallen.

More details can be seen at MSU Today: https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2020/building-soft-robots-to-lend-a-hand.