Article by: Guang-Zhong Yang, Peer Fischer and Bradley Nelson
Original Article | Science Robotics 27 Sep 2017: Vol. 2, Issue 10, eaap9294 | DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aap9294
Guang-Zhong Yang is the Editor of Science Robotics and the Director and Co-founder of the Hamlyn Centre, Imperial College London, London, UK.
Peer Fischer is a Professor of Physical Chemistry, University of Stuttgart, and heads the Micro, Nano, and Molecular Systems Laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, Stuttgart, Germany.
Bradley Nelson is the Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.
Robotics has evolved to become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. The field is also expanding into new areas of application to perform ever more complex tasks that are not possible for humans or at scales that humans cannot reach. The rapid advance of robotic systems in recent years is largely attributed to increases in computing performance, as well as progress in machine learning and control theory. In contrast, there has been little change in the way robots are assembled or in the choice of materials, actuators, and sensors that are used to drive current robotic systems. The traditional concept of motor-driven robots based on mechanical transmission and computer control is deeply etched into current hardware design of robotic systems. Unsurprisingly, “mechatronics” was, and still is, synonymous with robotics, reflecting the core engineering subfields and their interplay that have driven the latest advances in robotics.
However, exciting advances in materials science—including the development of smart materials, energy harvesting, and actuation schemes, as well as the adoption of bioinspired design principles—offer radically new ways to construct and operate robots. New materials that combine sensing and actuation challenge the physical limitations of traditional mechatronic systems and offer an entire range of new opportunities for the design of new robots (1). In previous issues of Science Robotics, their use, combined with different fabrication schemes, has already been demonstrated for soft robotics (2). New actuators made by these materials can react to the environment by changing either their material properties or their shape and can be electrically responsive or react to changes in temperature, light, magnetic fields, pH, pressure, or mechanical loading (3).