CMU uses knitting machines to make soft robots that hug

Perhaps people fear robotics and automation simply because they’re not cuddly enough. It’s certainly an under-explored aspect in the growing field of soft robotics. A team at Carnegie Mellon is taking on the challenge by creating soft robots with knitting machines.

Cuddliness aside, the real goal here is to design robotic form factors that are lower cost, less dangerous and in some cases even wearable. The team is designing an automated process that adds tendons, which can connect to harder motors, in order to create movement. Examples include, no joke, “stuffed figures that give hugs when poked in the stomach and even a sweater with a sleeve that moves on its own.”

Down the road, the research could lead to more serious soft robotics created with commercial knitting machines designed to produce garments.

“We have so many soft objects in our lives and many of them could be made interactive with this technology,” CMU PhD student Lea Albaugh says in a release tied to the news. “A garment could be part of your personal information system. Your sweater, for example, might tap you on your shoulder to get your attention. The fabric of a chair might serve as a haptic interface. Backpacks might open themselves.”

In a sense, it’s a kind of old-school take on 3D printing and other additive manufacturing. Potential materials for tendons include polyester-wrapped quilting thread, pure silk yarn and nylon monofilament. Conductive yarn, meanwhile, could give the robot a much better sense of its own movements.