Biological models for soft robots

Conventional industrial robots are precise and fast, but also rigid. In applications such as the handling of delicate agricultural goods, tissue grip during surgery, or physical patient exercise, such robot gripper concepts perform suboptimally due to their high stiffness and the risk of damaging the manipulated objects. Recently, soft robotics emerged as alternative technology.

Webpage of the 4T consortium 'Soft robotics':

PI: Johan van Leeuwen

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Inspired by soft biological systems such as the elephants trunk, the human hand, or a snakes body, soft robotic grippers are made of soft materials and their structural design allows a large flexibility. Hence, soft robotic grippers can interact reliably and gently with their environment. Within the 4TU project Soft robotics, we aim to unravel fundamental concepts of soft biological gripping systems, and to provide bioinspiration for the design of next-generation soft robots.

To provide innovative biomimetic concepts for soft robotics, we focus on the neuro-sensory-mechanics of two exquisite biological gripping systems: the sticky toe pads of tree frogs, and the soft muscular arms of the cuttlefish. The appendices of the cuttlefish have a nearly infinite number of degrees of freedom, and are an outstanding model for soft robotic limbs. Complex motions result from distributed activations patterns of specialised muscles generated by the nervous system that receives input from various sensors. The soft adhesive pads of tree frogs carry a hierarchical nano-micro-pattern of channels and are internally reinforced with connective tissue. Also the toe pads of tree frogs contain muscular and sensory structures that play an important role in gripping. Frog and cuttlefish are both able to gently grip wet slippery objects, which is of high relevance for the manipulation of delicate tissues in surgery, or the handling of delicate wet fruits.

To deepen the understanding of the functioning of biological soft grippers, we combine biomechanical experiments, characterisation of morphology and materials, as well as computational approaches. We follow a biomimetic approach and aim to identify crucial key principles, and to transfer these principles into technical grippers. At Wageningen University & Research, we work in collaboration with Dr. P. Sharma and Dr. J. Dijksman from Physical Chemistry and Soft Matter, and with Dr. A. Leylavi Shoushtari, Dr. G. Kootstra, and Prof. E. van Henten from the Farm Technology Group towards a bioinspired soft robotic gripper for the handling of agricultural products. Further, we have regular interactions with the other groups of the 4T consortium Soft robotics. This project is funded by the 4TU.Federation.