Engineers control soft robots with magnetic fields

engineering careers  Engineers control soft robots with magnetic fields

Engineers from North Carolina State University have made a fundamental advance in controlling “soft robots” by using magnetic fields to remotely manipulate chains embedded placed within them. The researchers have already created several devices that make use of the new technique.

The technique builds on past work in the field of soft robotics by Tracy and Orlin Velev.

By introducing iron “microparticles” into a liquid polymer mixture Engineers were able to apply a magnetic field. This allows the microparticles to align forming “parallel chains”. Once the mixture was then dried it left behind an elastic polymer thin film embedded with the aligned chains of magnetic particles.

By putting these self-assembling chains into soft robots, we are able to have them perform more complex functions while still retaining relatively simple designs […] Possible applications for these devices range from remotely triggered pumps for drug delivery to the development of remotely deployable structures.
Joe Tracy, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University and corresponding author of a paper

The technique has already allowed the Engineers to create three new kinds of soft robots.


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  • A cantilever that can lift up to 50 times its own weight.
  • An accordion-like structure that expands and contracts, mimicking the behaviour of muscle.
  • A tube that is designed to function as a peristaltic pump – a compressed section travels down the length of the tube ( a bit like someone squeezing out the last bit of toothpaste by running their finger along the tube.)

Joe Tracy, a professor of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University and one of the authors of a paper explained the next step would be to “work to improve both the control and the power of these devices [and] to advance the potential of soft robotics”

You can read the paper, “Chained Iron Microparticles for Directionally Controlled Actuation of Soft Robots,” in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.