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Among the most famous robots are the beloved Star Wars
characters R2D2 and C3PO, who are humanoid robots
(almost) perfectly capable of interacting with humans.
In the real world, robots now have key roles in indus-
try and medicine, and the field of robotics is expected
to play a major part in the 4th industrial revolution.
We have come a long way from giant industrial robots
to tiny machines and devices that can help in surgery.
However, like R2D2 and C3PO, most current robots are
made of rigid components with pre-programmed tasks,
making their application problematic once they operate
in close contact with or even in humans, or if they need
to autonomously navigate in complex environments,
such as space or water.
Soft robotics is an emerging field aiming to fabri-
cate soft robots for close machine–human interactions.
The soft nature allows the robots to adapt to their sur-
roundings, to perform different and even autonomous
tasks, and to mimic the motion and function of biolog-
ical systems, such as human muscles or the locomotion
of bacterial cells. The field strives to mimic nature by
designing biology-inspired structures and by recre-
ating the way humans, animals and cells move. Soft
and smart materials, such as ionotronic hydrogels and
shape-memory polymers, are important in the design
of soft robots and their chemistry and manufacturing
are at the centre of current research efforts. Fabrication
technologies, such as 3D printing and origami folding,
have enabled the engineering of robots based on soft
materials and have opened opportunities for the imple-
mentation of autonomic behaviours and sophisticated
Combined efforts of materials science, computational
design and creative engineering have already led to the
development of origami robots that unfold and func-
tion once they reach a specific environment, of small soft
robots that can navigate in biological tissue to excise cells
or deliver drugs, of inflatable robots that can exert force
to pick up objects and of exoskeletons and prostheses
that can be worn to support or replace the function of
The ultimate goal is the integration of soft actuators,
sensors, controls and power systems without any hard
components using a single, low-cost fabrication pro-
cess to design fully artificial, intelligent soft robots that
can function as medical, assistive and wearable devices,
that can work in space or within a human organ, that can
replace muscles or even whole organs and that are capable
to safely interact with humans.
A number of challenges remain in the materials, engi-
neering and design aspects of soft robots, but the great
variety in soft materials, fabrication, design technologies
and real-world applications of soft robots discussed in
this Focus issue demonstrate that the stage is already
set for a soft robotic future. We hope you enjoy read-
ing these Research Highlights, Comments and Review
articles on this topic.
The soft touch of robots
Credit: Paper Boat Creative
is an emerging
field aiming to
robots for close