If you’ve ever seen a video of an octopus opening a screw-top jar (and there are several out there on the internet), you’ll know that soft bodies can be surprisingly efficient. Robots, on the other hand, tend to be solid and inflexible, even though that can leave them helpless in situations where the environment isn’t carefully controlled. Soft robots offer the best of both worlds, combining the efficiency and adaptability of the octopus with the control and precision of robotic systems, and are therefore the focus of considerable interest for industry, particularly in aquatic environments.
In 2011, Chancellor’s Fellow Francesco Giorgio-Serchi won a Marie-Curie Fellowship to conduct research into bio-inspired aquatic propulsion, which, as the name suggests, involves learning lessons from natural organisms and applying them to the development of engineering projects. At the Centre for Sea Technologies and Marine Robotics, Scuola Superiore in Sant’Anna, Italy, Dr Giorgio-Sechi designed and patented a tendon-driven soft robot with multi-modal locomotion capabilities, inspired by the incredible capabilities of the common octopus.
Currently, Dr Giorgio-Sechi is based at the University’s Scottish Microelectronics Centre, where his work explores the design and control of compliant elastic mechatronics systems and continuum soft manipulators. He is also involved in shape-morphing ocean renewable energy devices and hydrodynamics. His interest in Data-Driven Innovation stems from the opportunity it presents to exploit machine learning techniques that can reduce the complexity of high-dimensional engineering problems, in order to design fast control algorithms or enhance the predictability of external perturbations. This is particularly valuable in the context of robot control, when the system dynamics are too complex, as in the case of soft, continuum mechatronics systems; or when disturbances affecting the system are unpredictable, as in the case of an underwater vehicle subject to ocean waves and currents.
“I moved to the University of Edinburgh in 2018 as a Research Associate of ORCA Hub,” notes Dr Giorgio-Sechi, “where I work on model predictive control of unmanned underwater vehicles for operations in adverse weather conditions.” ORCA Hub is a £36m UK-wide partnership addressing the vision of a completely autonomous offshore energy field. Dr Giorgio-Sechi’s other research interests include fluid mechanics robotics, computational fluid dynamics, aquatic propulsion and biological flows.
Soft robots offer the best of both worlds, combining the efficiency and adaptability of the octopus with the control and precision of robotic systems