New ‘SoftZoo’ allows engineers to test a variety of animal-inspired robots

In the platform can be found 3D models of animals such as panda bears, fishes, sharks, and caterpillars.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Animal-inspired robots.jpg
Animal-inspired robots.

Alex Shipps/MIT CSAIL  

A team of MIT researchers has developed a bio-inspired platform that enables engineers to study soft robot co-design called a “SoftZoo” due to the fact that it was inspired by animal-like robots. 

This is according to a report by the institution published on Tuesday.

In the platform can be found 3D models of animals such as panda bears, fishes, sharks, and caterpillars.

“Our framework can help users find the best configuration for a robot’s shape, allowing them to design soft robotics algorithms that can do many different things,” saif MIT PhD student Tsun-Hsuan Wang, an affiliate of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) who is a lead researcher on the project. 

“In essence, it helps us understand the best strategies for robots to interact with their environments.”

Although similar platforms do currently exist, its founders say SoftZoo is more comprehensive because it models movement that reacts to the physical features of various biomes. The system has the unique ability to simulate interactions with different terrains and evaluate biological outlines that can inspire more specialized artificial life. 

“A jellyfish’s gently undulating geometry allows it to efficiently travel across large bodies of water, inspiring researchers to develop new breeds of soft robots and opening up unlimited possibilities of what artificial creatures cultivated entirely in silico can be capable of,” explained Wang. 

“Additionally, dragonflies can perform very agile maneuvers that other flying creatures cannot complete because they have special structures on their wings that change their center of mass when they fly. Our platform optimizes locomotion the same way a dragonfly is naturally more adept at working through its surroundings.”

SoftZoo further allows designers to develop the robot’s brain and body simultaneously.

“SoftZoo provides open-source simulation for soft robot designers, helping them build real-world robots much more easily and flexibly while accelerating the machines’ locomotion capabilities in diverse environments,” added study co-author Chuang Gan, a research scientist at the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab.

“This computational approach to co-designing the soft robot bodies and their brains (that is, their controllers) opens the door to rapidly creating customized machines that are designed for a specific task,” concluded in the statement Daniela Rus, director of CSAIL and the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), who is another author of the work.

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