Cecilia Laschi and Barbara Mazzolai spoke to PhD students about "soft" and bio-inspired robots

July 8 2016 - Cecilia Laschi of the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa and Barbara Mazzolai of the Italian Institute of Technology are the two Italian scientists included by the Robohub site among the 25 most important women in world robotics. They held a lecture at the Graduate School UCBM within the Research Week, Thursday 7 July.

Cecilia Laschi can be considered one of the initiators of soft robotics, the revolution in robotics that has made it possible to introduce soft and therefore usable systems for new functions, especially in the biomedical field. “We started rethinking the robot's physical body and the way it's built,” he says. But how? "Choosing the octopus as a model - explains the scholar - precisely because it represents the opposite of the traditional robot, with a complete absence of rigid parts". By studying this living being capable of performing functions typically required of a robot such as swimming, walking or grasping, the researchers led by Laschi were therefore able to create an endoscope that allows more precise and less annoying examinations for patients, as well as an arm to help old people in the shower.

Not only can biology be a source of inspiration for designing new robots in the biomedical or environmental fields: robotics itself can offer a more in-depth knowledge of the starting biological element. Thus Barbara Mazzolai, a biologist who has worked for a long time atingengineering, spoke of the effective union between the two sciences. “For example, we studied the behavior of plant roots to create robots that move in the soil with an environmental monitoring function. Subsequently – continues the researcher – we used the robot to validate and test some functions of the starting biological element. This allowed us to observe the efficiency of the root moving in the soil because it grows from the tip." Biology had predicted that roots grow by adding cells, the robot taught that this type of growth is much more energetically productive. The scientist gives a glimpse of the new frontier of bio-inspired robotics: the idea is that robots - less complex but therefore more controllable systems - will become the microscopes of the future.