Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet GIRISH KRISHNAN, a professor in the University of Illinois Department of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering. He is an expert and practitioner of soft robotics — exactly what it sounds like, robots not made of metal.
It sounds like these robots would be much safer in industry, such as assembly-line robots that will not hurt humans if they hit each other. Was that one of your motivations?
Yes, certainly. On a larger scale, our motivation was primarily to research technologies that could bring back manufacturing to the United States, create jobs, build communities and sustain economy. So we had to create robots that could work with humans, augment their abilities and increase productivity in the shop floor (as opposed to replace them completely). Creating human friendly robots is more than just increasing its intelligence. It is also about how robots interface with humans, while retaining their functionality. In our research, we embody our robots with soft materials such as stretchable rubber skins, fibers and fluid pressure. There are innumerable examples in nature (infact 90 percent of animals are invertebrates) where these constituents are used to obtain structural rigidity and motion. With this technology we have demonstrated several spatial motion patterns, just as a snake would to constrict its prey. We have a patent pending on this technology.
What sorts of applications do they have in medicine? Robotic tools? Prosthetic limbs?
Soft robots may indeed be the future of surgery. These days, there is a big push for minimally invasive surgeries, where the most complex procedures can be ideally conducted through a 3 cm diameter incision. For this the surgical tool, must be able to bend, twist and curve around the body organs to reach the surgical spot. With sufficient advancement in this technology, this could be a reality. More realistically, we are perfecting this technology in larger scales, where there is an external interaction with humans. Our research team in collaboration with Professor Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler has designed and tested a orthotic Lofstrand crutch with a soft support element. In these patients, it is observed that typically close to 50 percent of their body weight are being transferred on to the wrist, which eventually leads to carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, or joint deformity. We have designed a soft pneumatic sleeve as an add-on to a Lofstrand crutch to redirect the load acting on the wrist to the forearm, thereby improving the wrist posture and minimizing the risk for injury. Professor Hsiao-Wecksler's team have designed an energy harvesting crutch which pumps pressurized air into the sleeve. We have been issued a patent for this device.
I love the video of the octopus beating the shark. Was that part of your inspiration for the concept?
Definitely. It demonstrates that you don't have to be hard and rigid to be powerful. While this was definitely our motivation, I personally was inspired by the writings of Steven Vogel (former frofessor in Duke University, who sadly passed away in 2015), who wrote a book on comparative biomechanics. He beautifully brings out the fundamental engineering challenges of today, and how nature (animals and plants) has overcome them. He has also stressed on the use of material deformation in the body structure (plants deform, invertebrates move by stretching or flexing their body) as a concept nature employs to good effect.
Who else is on your team?
My students have taught me a lot over the past three years: Gaurav Singh, Sreeshankar Satheeshbabu, Sreekalyan Patiballa, Naveen Uppalapati, Xiaotian Zhang and through collaboration with Dr. Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler, some of her students: Nicholas Thompson, Cathy Shih and Chenzhang Xiao.
Do you plan to commercialize these ideas?
Definitely in the future. For now, we believe this technology is still in the nascent stage. A lot of effort has to be put in before these technologies can reach industrial maturity.
Unlike putty or pizza, you're working on a material that expands in the middle when stretched on the sides. What are some of the applications for this?
These belong to a boarder class of mechanical metamaterials. The general concept is like how the Eiffel Tower looks. While the whole tower structure is etched in everyone's mind, few pay attention to the minute details of how or what the structure is made of. In fact the Eiffel tower is made of self similar building blocks which are put together (almost like LEGOs). In future the materials that we will use in cars, aircrafts, houses etc. ,will be based on a similar principle. Our research focused on how these building blocks must be designed in the micro-scale such that the overall material when stretched axially also expands laterally. They have applications in creating energy absorbing structures (body armors), packing material, knee and elbow pads and sponge mops.
You and Ph.D. student Sreekalyan Patiballa recently were awarded the Freudenstein Young Investigator Award. Is your winning paper online now?
Our award was for the design methodology employed to design these materials. The methodology can be used by several strata of experienced individuals, right from high school students to the best-trained engineer to design these materials in a systematic manner. Current methods rely on heavy computations that can be programmed by a handful professionals. Our paper will be online by October.
What's your best advice for someone who's starting up? Did you ever make any mistakes in your early years? How did you learn from them?
Before beginning to conduct academic research, I strongly believe everyone must pay attention to three attributes: innovation: the coolness or the wow factor of the research, intellectual and academic merit am socio-economic relevance. Our research must intersect these three aspects, although sometimes in varied amounts. Some of the mistakes people commit (and I may have been guilty of this myself) is trade-off one for another.
TECH TIDBITS with ... GIRISH KRISHNAN
LinkedIn handle? linkedin.com/in/girish-krishnan-b6a5886/
Favorite app: Yelp.
On Facebook I follow ... the founder himself, Mark Zuckerberg.
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? I am reading "Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing."
Do you have any wearable electronics? No.
Do you have a high-tech hero? My entrepreneur hero is Dr. Sridhar Kota (also my adviser) from the University of Michigan. He has set the tone for many budding researchers with strong ties to academia on how they can translate their research in an entrepreneurial setting. He used the concept of compliant or deformable mechanisms researched in his lab and applied it to a shape changing aircraft wing that morphs its shape to adapt to flight conditions (just as birds do).