New Study Suggests Squishy Robots You Can Hug Are Better To Get On With

A new study from Washington State University suggests that soft robots made from flexible materials may provoke less anxiety in human workers compared to traditional rigid robots.

The research found that people who watched videos of a soft robot working alongside a person reported lower safety concerns and job insecurity fears. This effect held even when the soft robot operated in close proximity to the human.

“Prior research has generally found that the closer you are to a rigid robot, the more negative your reactions are, but we didn’t find those outcomes in this study of soft robots,”

Tahira Probst, a psychology professor at WSU

Currently, human workers and rigid robots must maintain minimum distances for safety. But as this research shows, being near soft robots appears psychologically acceptable, in addition to posing lower physical risks.

“This finding needs to be replicated, but if it holds up, that means humans could work together more closely with the soft robots,” Probst said.

The study, published in IISE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, did reveal some caveats. Faster soft robot movements tended to evoke more negative responses. However, participants with prior robot experience preferred the quicker interactions. This aligns with the overall finding that greater familiarity with robots increased comfort levels.

Automation through robotics is expected to transform many jobs in coming decades, especially in production, transportation, extraction and agriculture. Over 50% of occupations have high potential for partial or full automation.

Soft robots offer advantages over prevalent rigid designs. Their flexible materials make them inherently safer, eliminating the need for expensive precision hardware and sensors.

Washington State University doctoral students Justin Allen, left, and Ryan Dorosh, demonstrate a soft robot in development at WSU

“We make soft robots that are naturally safe, so we don’t have to focus a lot on expensive hardware and sensors to guarantee safety like has to be done with rigid robots,” said study co-author Ming Luo, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at WSU.

For example, a specialized rigid robot for sample maipulation can cost over $30,000. In contrast, current prototypes of soft robots cost under $5,000 to research labs and manufactures. Scaling up production would further decrease costs.

Luo’s team is developing soft robots for agriculture, including fruit picking, pruning and pollinating. Their flexibility and safety also make them ideal for assisting in delicate lab operations and managing glassware.

To understand how humans react to soft robots, Luo has partnered with Probst’s psychology researchers. “It’s good to know how humans will react to the soft robots in advance and then incorporate that information into the design,” Probst said. “That’s why we’re working in tandem, where the psychology side is informing the technical development of these robots in their infancy.”

Future studies will directly observe participants interacting with soft robots in the lab. In addition to subjective feedback, the researchers will monitor physiological stress markers like heart rate and skin conductivity.

The initial results suggest soft-bodied automation may play a key role in the coming age of human-robot collaboration. As more jobs undergo at least partial automation, soft technologies appear poised to ease the psychological transition. But more research is still needed to confirm the unique advantages of molded polymer skins over cold steel limbs.

You can read Probst’s full paper in the journal IISE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors here.

Staff Writer

Our in-house science writing team has prepared this content specifically for Lab Horizons

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