Member Spotlight: Super-Releaser Applies Soft Robotics to Exoskeletons, Prosthetics
Super-Releaser wants to change the way people think about robotics. Rather than rigid mechanical structures powered by motors, the company’s lead scientist Matthew Borgatti described how soft robots designed to mimic biological mechanisms show significant potential in military, healthcare, and robotics applications.
The Brooklyn-based startup has a unique history, especially its lead scientist. Each summer while Borgatti was earning his Industrial Design degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, he built special effects animatronics in Hollywood for feature films like Alien Vs Predator 2, Team America, and Snakes on a Plane.
Meanwhile, the company’s Soft Goods Engineer, Kari Love, has designed and built everything from Spider-Man costumes for Broadway to spacesuits. Their director of research, James Bredt, founded Z-Corp, what was once the third largest 3-D printing manufacturer. He now teaches material science at MIT.
Super-Releaser migrated to building robots for government customers when they earned a subcontract from NASA. Borgatti uses 3D printed molds to go from concepts to functional prototypes and quickly iterate on ideas.
Soft robotics as a concept has grown in popularity in government agency circles as leaders look toward its potential in wearables, especially as government researchers develop robots that soldiers, astronauts and mechanics can slip on like an athletic brace.
Scientists are also studying how soft robots could lead to major breakthroughs in the development of self-repairing, growing and self-replicating robots, according to the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. Borgatti explained how soft robots can react to their environments – a major factor for future government use. For example, soft robots can be designed to navigate difficult terrain like shifting sand and fall without being damaged – picking themselves up and correcting their course.
The U.S. Army and Special Forces community is particularly invested in soft robotics and what it could mean for the Iron Man exoskeleton it wants to build under the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit program. The Department of Veterans Affairs is also seeking research into soft robotics for exoskeletons to aid wounded veterans.
Super-Releaser first joined Tandem National Security Innovations (Tandem NSI) at an event to promote DARPA’s Robotics Fast Track program to connect entrepreneurs to robotics contracts to build prototypes in under a year. The company is working on a collection of projects that could have interested government customers.
For example, Super-Releaser is developing an orthotic exoskeleton called the Neucuff that could drastically reduce the cost of orthotics. The Neucuff is an entirely soft robotic elbow orthosis that can fit a wide variety of bodies without any customization. It is aimed at allowing people with cerebral palsy to move their arms with enough strength and fidelity to take control of tasks like self feeding and dressing that might otherwise require live-in care.
“Soft robotics offers an avenue to apply force evenly across the body with an exoskeleton that is as gentle as it is strong. Being conformal by nature means a single design can fit a wide range of people just like any athletic brace,” according to Super-Releaser’s website.
These orthotics could mean considerable savings for wounded warriors returning from combat after a disabling injury. It could also help make exoskeletons more comfortable to wear, especially when bearing a heavy load.
The newest robot developed by Super-Releaser is its robotic quadruped that can walk, coordinating a complex series of actuators with only two air lines as inputs. It stands out because it’s a proof of concept “for a method developed here that can reproduce nearly any geometry modeled on the computer as a seamless silicone skin,” according to Super-Releaser. This technique allows Super-Releaser to inexpensively mass produce sophisticated adaptive robots.
Super-Releaser is committed to proving the value of soft robotics by opening their discoveries to the public. You can actually download all of the design files for the Glaucus and make your own at home through the Super-Releaser website.
In terms of the Super-Releaser’s future, Borgatti said the company is eager for opportunities to apply their technologies to real-world problems. They are currently pursuing Small Business Innovation Research grants with government agencies along with its other commercial business.
He said he’s excited about how fast soft robotics is progressing. Borgatti explained that the Government’s investment in novel technology has been a huge factor in helping move the soft robotics field forward.
— The author, Michael Hoffman, can be reached at email@example.com