New robots step forward – MEiTNER begins

New robots step forward  – MEiTNER begins

Even today, robots struggle with tasks that people find easy: harvesting sensitive fruit, moving over difficult terrain and care tasks for patients and convalescents are beyond current capabilities. This is set to change: scientists at TU Dresden are developing a new generation of robots and robotic components. As part of the Emmy Noether Programme, 2 million Euros from the German Research Foundation (DFG) is supporting the newly-established “MEiTNER – Mulitfunctional Dielectric Electronics for Next Generation Soft Robotics” research group. Over the next six years, the MEiTNER will deliver smart and flexible materials, manufacturing processes and complex bionic components for highly capable, adaptive, robotic systems.

Conventional robots use hard components controlled by rigid electronics and are useful for manufacturing processes needing repetitive, pre-programmed movements – kept away from people for safety. There is a pressing need for more flexibility and adaptability if robot applications are to increase, freeing people from mundane tasks. “Flexible robot systems will open up completely new applications that seem unimaginable to engineers today. We draw inspiration from the natural world around us – the end result of millions of years of evolution.” says Dr. Markus Henke, MEiTNER group leader at TU Dresden and PowerON’s CEO. For example, bionic robots made of flexible materials can mimic insects – and crawl into danger areas for disaster reconnaissance. The same technology gives sense of touch to robot “gripper systems”- robot hands. 

Dr. Henke noted that robots with adaptive, intelligent, gripper systems can finally take over heavy work from people, while safely working together with human colleagues. “We see applications medium-term in harvesting robots for sensitive agricultural products such as asparagus, avocados or kiwis and for e-commerce fulfilment centres.” said Dr. Henke. Many applications in medical technology will open up as the technology matures: intelligent, lifelike, prosthetic components, medication pumps built as soft skins and much more. “I know this sounds like science fiction”, Dr. Henke observed, “but these are already demonstrated in our laboratory. MEiTNER is a significant step towards commercial readiness.”

MEiTNER is further developing flexible electronic systems made of multifunctional dielectric elastomers, often referred to as “artificial muscles”. Dielectric elastomers are sophisticated polymers incorporating electrically conductive particles. Dr. Henke: “We work at micro-scale now and we see great possibilities for nano-scale implementations as MEiTNER improves our processes.” Dresden researchers are cooperating with the Biomimetics Laboratory, led by Professor Iain Anderson, at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Under an exclusive arrangement, MEiTNER outputs will be commercialized by PowerON, a new company with operations in Auckland and Dresden. Katie Wilson, PowerON CTO said: “We are grateful for the DFG’s support, which will accelerate PowerON’s commercialization mission. I look forward to working closely with the Dresden colleagues throughout MEiTNER.”