This robot has soft hands. It could be the future of sustainable production

Robot UN AI 2018

(United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2017)

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Carl Vause, CEO, Soft Robotics

In 2011, Professor George Whitesides of Harvard University helped rewrite the rules of what a machine could be. He developed biologically inspired ‘soft robots’, in collaboration with Harvard and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The challenge he undertook was to create a robot that could manoeuvre through a gap less than two centimetres high. While most robotic engineers tried using traditional, rigid robots, Whitesides drew inspiration from nature and living organisms. He created a new class of soft robots, made entirely from compliant, elastomeric polymers. In contrast to robots made from rigid materials, the soft robot’s flexibility enabled it to accomplish the DARPA challenge easily. It was a breakthrough in the field of robotics.

The earliest technological applications to come out of the DARPA collaboration were in the biomedical field. Soft robotics could be used, adaptively and delicately, to manoeuvre around the body during invasive surgery, or safely transport organs and soft tissue without damage. But it was not long before industrial automation would emerge as an application for this groundbreaking technology.

Industries such as e-commerce, advanced manufacturing, and food and agriculture have been under increasing pressure to find automation solutions to handle a declining labour pool, rising customer demand, and, in the case of food, increasingly stringent safety standards. However, the variable and fragile nature of these industries’ products has largely excluded them from automation.

While Whitesides’ work spawned an entirely new focus area for academic research and development, in 2013 Soft Robotics Inc. emerged as a pioneering force developing the first and only commercial applications. It advanced this technology into a commercial product that could unlock automation for industrial customers around the world. By leveraging patented material science and AI, Soft Robotics builds automation solutions that can grasp items with the same dexterity as the human hand. It is revolutionizing robotic automation to feed the world, and enable industrial productivity in every market.

Why do we need soft robotics?

Food handling and packaging, primarily in produce and baked items, is a highly manual process. Labour costs represent a significant input into total product cost. Historically, workers in these markets have been sourced through low-cost migrant labour. But in the past few years, we have seen a significant reduction in the availability of labour for produce and other food production markets.

Whether it is reduced migrant labour in Salinas, California, or the impact of Brexit on labour flows to the UK from EU countries, or the newly passed regulatory barriers to ‘backpacker’ labour in Australia, this is a global problem. It is having a direct impact on the cost and supply of food around the world. As labour continues to become more scarce, producers are turning to automation to maintain productivity and, in many cases, the economic viability of their food production businesses.

Traditional robots have been designed to perform a single task extremely efficiently. But when the item or the task changes, which is often the case with food, these traditional machines need to be reintegrated and reprogrammed, which can take hundreds of hours and significant capital investment.

This problem is not just limited to food. With increased demand for consumer goods, and labour constraints in industries such as advanced manufacturing and e-commerce, the need for robots to solve dexterous manipulation is stronger than ever. Even the US government cites “flexible gripping mechanisms that allow for dexterous manipulation of everyday objects” as a “national imperative”, in its 2016 Roadmap for Robotics report.

The majority of today’s robotic solutions are based on hard linkages and vision systems, making it difficult to pick up soft and variable objects such as food, or interact safely with humans. Traditional robotics manufacturers have attempted to mimic the human hand with rigid linkages, sensors and sophisticated vision systems. Soft Robotics’ approach solves this problem through material science, not through higher levels of cost and complexity.

The design for Soft Robotics’ technology was inspired by the octopus – a paradigm shift from the traditional robotics approach. This led to the invention of soft robotic actuators made entirely of polymers that do not require sensors or other electromechanical devices for operation. The computational power of the system is built into the gripper itself, a proprietary blend of materials with microfluidic channels. When actuated, it mimics the tentacles of an octopus to replicate the grasping and gripping capabilities of the human hand.

Today, only 12% of non-automotive industries are automated by robots, because existing, rigid robots are unable to solve for dexterous manipulation of variable product and unstructured tasks. By leveraging the properties of soft and compliant materials, we are able to build a fundamentally new set of adaptive and dexterous robotic hands that open up completely new applications for these labour-starved industries.

Driving the future of food production

Agriculture in the 21st century faces the challenge of producing more food to feed a growing population, with a smaller rural labour force. Over the last century, the global population has quadrupled, according to the UN. This growth, along with increased incomes in developing countries, is driving up global food demand, which is expected to rise by between 59% to 98% by 2050.

This will shape the agriculture and food market in new ways. Farmers will need to increase production yields. But with labour shortages, production has slowed and expansion is difficult. The farm labour shortage accounted for $3 billion in lost annual revenue between 2002 and 2014. California, which produces a third of America’s vegetables and two thirds of its fruit and nuts, has been particularly affected. The state lost nearly 40% of its agricultural workforce between 2002 and 2014, according to the Farm Labor Survey and US Census of Agriculture. Solving for the productivity challenge in agriculture will not only feed the world, but can create jobs, and turn agriculture-based economies into export economies.

The reality of labour scarcity and food safety concerns are having a direct impact on the cost and availability of food globally. Soft Robotics’ technology helps new industries bring automation into their handling and packaging applications. Every human on earth participates in the global food supply chain. We are working to ensure the economic viability of food producers to supply this market.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Migration crisis will keep deteriorating as common EU political will is simply not there

As Libya talks resume in Geneva, UN negotiator seeks to overcome sticking points

COP21 Breaking News_12 December: 195 countries adopt the First Universal Climate Agreement

IMF: Sorry Greece, Ireland, Portugal we were wrong!

Google succumbs unconditionally to EU’s “right to be forgotten” ruling

Weak growth of G20 international merchandise trade in third quarter of 2018

Livelihoods of millions in East and Southeast Asia at risk from Swine Fever epidemic

EU seeks foreign support on 5G from Mobile World Congress 2015 as the “digital gold rush” begins

Impact Investment needs global standards and better measurement

Restore land to save the planet, boost the economy, says head of UN body combating desertification

Mergers: Commission clears Vodafone’s acquisition of Liberty Global’s cable business in Czechia, Germany, Hungary and Romania, subject to conditions

‘Everyone must be on board’ for peace in Central African Republic: UN’s Lacroix

UN committed to helping Haiti build better future, says Guterres, marking 10-year anniversary of devastating earthquake

Gender equality: an issue much talked about but less acted upon

From philanthropy to profit: how clean energy is kickstarting sustainable development in East Africa

Entrepreneurship’s key to success showcased by a serial young entrepreneur

Project Manager – 2024

This simple digital solution could streamline global travel and boost trade during COVID – here’s how

European Citizens’ Initiative: A game of much publicity and one big lie

The eyes of Brazil and the world turn to the largest rainforest and largest biodiversity reserve on Earth #PrayForAmazonia.

The US and EU decisively oppose Erdogan’s plans for Turkey and beyond

This US city sends mental health workers instead of police to non-criminal emergency calls

INTERVIEW: ‘Defend the people, not the States’, says outgoing UN human rights chief

These are the top countries for travel and tourism in 2019

The smartest cyber investment is collective action. Here’s why

US and China in painstaking efforts to conclude trade talks

Digital was our lifeline in 2020, and we are more positive about it since

‘Don’t forget Madagascar’s children’, UN appeals for long-term help as emergency worsens

The US Congress and European Parliament vote are TTIP’s 10th round’s lucky cards

Wednesday’s Daily Brief: Diplomacy for Peace Day, #VaccinesWork, the cost of war on Afghans, tech and well-being

Climate change hits the poor hardest. Mozambique’s cyclones prove it

EU commits €9 million in humanitarian aid for the most vulnerable families in Myanmar

Republic of Korea President proposes DMZ as future ‘peace and cooperation district’ on Peninsula

UN leads bid for cheaper insulin, expanding access for diabetics worldwide

Europe’s dirty air kills 400,000 people every year

Commission’s report shows that targeted investment and robust digital policies boost Member States’ performance

The gender gap of medicine in 2018

Telemedicine during the pandemic: its benefits and limitations

Telemedicine can be a COVID-19 game-changer. Here’s how

Trade MEPs promise thorough scrutiny of the EU-UK agreement

Visa liberalisation: Commission reports on fulfilment of visa-free requirements by Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries

Tomorrow’s UK general election: Will Tories win majority to shoot an abrupt Brexit or a hung parliament will prolong January’s exit to 2050?

This man ran across the USA to raise awareness of plastic pollution

5 ways to fast-track the transition to a carbon neutral world

Don’t let smoking steal life’s breathtaking moments, urges UN health agency

Security Council marks transition from 15 years of UN peacekeeping in Haiti

Latest leaked TTIP document confirms EU sovereignty may be under threat

Safer roads: More life-saving technology to be mandatory in vehicles

Monday’s Daily Brief: ‘Horror’ at Notre Dame fire disaster, Yemen still bleeding, measles now ‘global crisis’

COVID-19: What you need to know about the coronavirus pandemic on 4 January

Somalia advancing towards ‘inclusive and peaceful future’ for women, deputy UN chief

Can Obama attract Iran close to the US sphere of influence?

Egypt is building one of the world’s largest solar parks

These are the cities with the biggest carbon footprints

Entrepreneurial leadership: what does it take to become a leader?

From low-earth orbit, ‘envoys’ of humanity join UN space forum

COP21 Breaking News_10 December: the final sprint of the Final Agreement Negotiations

How studying genetics and lifestyle can shape a healthier MENA region

Zero carbon by 2050 is possible. Here is what we need to do

Myanmar military target civilians in deadly helicopter attack, UN rights office issues war crimes warning

More Stings?

Advertising

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s