This, $530,000/5 year, Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program will promote the progress of science by introducing a novel and systematic approach to combine a self-contained, set of soft robotic modules into sophisticated cyber-physical systems capable of solving complex manipulation and locomotion challenges. Soft robotics has demonstrated the potential for unlocking the secrets of biological creatures and creating the next generation of adaptable, versatile, and human-friendly robots. Despite being researched extensively, to date, the practical application potential of soft robots remains elusive. The objective of this proposal is to identify several areas where a fundamental change of thinking must happen to alleviate the current stagnation of soft robotic research. In doing so, the we will demonstrate how to effectively utilize different types of fundamental soft robotic modules for solving complex manipulation and locomotion problems. In the mid/long-term, the evolution of this research could yield robotic systems to serve society as human-friendly soft co-robots in factory automation, wearable rehabilitation systems, and search & rescue robots.
To achieve these objectives, the we proposes an integrated research and education plan comprised of three synergistic and interconnected research thrusts. The first thrust focuses on proposing a novel “nonlinear” and “bioinspired” philosophy to design novel soft robots by harnessing the “strength in numbers” and the art of “assembly.” The central thesis of this approach is to maintain a fundamental set of heterogeneous soft robotic modules with varying operational complexity and mechanical properties. The second thrust focuses on finding how to optimally configure the soft robotic modules to solve manipulation and locomotion tasks. This strategy, based on learning and evolutionary computing techniques, iteratively assembles the soft modules and ascertains a “minimal” complexity robot with reduced control challenges for a given task. Herein, Dr. Godage will derive real-time state estimation and employ state feedback to apply classical and morphological computation-based control or a variable combination thereof to validate and deploy the robot. The third thrust focuses on infusing research results into education at the high school, college, and post-college levels while broadening the participation of underrepresented groups in engineering. Proposed endeavors include incorporating robotics-related elements into the curriculum at the undergrad level within the Engineering program in the School of Computing at DePaul University. Dr. Godage will incorporate the proposed research activities/results and implement outreach activities to raise awareness of robotics in the Chicago Public School system high school students via workshops and annual summer academies.