Gianluca Rizzello together with his doctoral student Johannes Prechtl recently won the Best Paper Award at the RoboSoft 2021 conference for their work on developing a prototype dielectric-elastomer-based tentacle - just one of the numerous accolades earned by Professor Seelecke's research team. The team hopes to have the tentacle prototype fully developed in about a year's time.
When it comes to imparting intelligence into polymeric materials, Gianluca Rizzello is something of an expert. He provides the control unit (i.e. the robot's 'brain') with the input needed to move the arm in an intelligent manner - a highly complex and ambitious task. 'These systems are significantly more complex than the robot arms in use today. Using artificial intelligence to control polymer-based components is substantially more challenging than controlling conventional mechatronic systems,' explains Rizzello. As the elastomer muscles also have sensor properties, they can act as the system's nerves, which means that the robot arm does not need to be equipped with additional sensors. 'Every distortion of the elastomer, every change in its geometry causes a change in the material's capacitance, which enables the team to assign a precise electrical capacitance value to any specific deformation of the elastomer. By measuring the capacitance, we know exactly what shape the elastomer has adopted, which allows us to extract sensor data,' explains Rizzello.
This quantitative data can then be used to precisely model and program the motion of the elastomer arm. The focus of Rizzello's research work is on developing intelligent algorithms that can train these novel robot tentacles to move and respond in the required manner. 'We are attempting to uncover which physical properties are responsible for the behaviour of these polymers. The more we know, the more precisely we can design the algorithms to control the elastomer muscles,' says Dr. Rizzello.
The technology being developed in Saarland will be scalable. It can be used to create miniature tentacles for medical instruments or to make large robot arms for industrial applications. But unlike the heavy robot arms in use today, the robot limbs built from smart elastomers will be far lighter. 'Our robot arms don't need to be driven by motors or by hydraulic or pneumatic systems - they can be powered simply by the application of an electric current. The elastomer muscles can also be produced in shapes that meet the requirements of a particular application. And they consume very little electric power. Depending on the capacitance, the electric currents that flow are in the microampere range. This type of soft robot technology has huge promise for the future as it is both energy efficient and cost-effective to manufacture,' says Stefan Seelecke in summary.