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Nature provides inspiration for soft robot design

Veikko Sariola has recently started as Assistant Professor at TUT’s Department of Automation Science and Engineering. He is eager to find out what nature could teach us about robotics. We can find pearls of wisdom by studying octopi or the foot hair of a gecko, for example.

The field of professorship of Veikko Sariola, a newly appointed Assistant Professor at TUT, is bio-MEMS in cell and tissue engineering.

“In my research at TUT, I aim to bring robotics and cell and tissue engineering closer together. To an increasing extent, robots will look like animals and borrow nature’s best ideas about materials, structures and intelligence. On the other hand, we will be able to understand and control cells with similar methods we apply to robots today. Artificial intelligence will revolutionize cell and tissue engineering once we learn how to model, predict and control cell behaviour in different conditions,” Sariola explains.

“My contribution to TUT will be interdisciplinary expertise at the interfaces of electrical engineering, bioscience and medicine, control engineering and materials science. My specialties include microfabrication, measurement technologies and control engineering. During this coming academic year, I will teach courses on microsystems, microactuators and microfluidics.”

WHO?

Veikko Tapani Sariola (b. 1982 in Helsinki)

 

Key degrees:

  • Master of Science in Technology 2007, Helsinki University of Technology
  • Doctor of Science in Technology 2012, Aalto University

 

Key work history:

  • Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Mellon University, United States, 2013–2015
  • Post-Doctoral Researcher, Aalto University, Department of Automation and Electrical Engineering, 2012–2016
  • Doctoral Student, Aalto University, Department of Automation and Electrical Engineering, 2007–2012
  • Research Assistant, Helsinki University of Technology, Systems Analysis Laboratory, 2004–2007
  • Software Developer, 1999–2003

 

Family and hobbies: Wife and three small children. At leisure, I read.

Agile like octopus, sticky like mussels

In addition to the professorship, Veikko Sariola’s new endeavours this autumn include a five-year term as an Academy Research Fellow.

“My topic is bioinspired materials and sensors for soft robots. The future applications of these robots lie in medicine,” Sariola says.

As the name reveals, soft robots are robots made of soft, rubber-like materials – similarly to animals that are composed of soft tissue. Since they are soft, they are safe and cause no damage to humans when used in surgery, implants or prostheses, for example. Nature offers researchers with endless inspiration when it comes to copying materials on a molecule level or mimicking macroscopic structures.

“Let’s take the octopus, for example. Since they have almost nothing hard in their bodies, they can squeeze through the tiniest of holes. How could we copy this attribute to a robot surgeon? Or how about moist conditions, such as water or the human body, where most adhesives do not stick at all. Mussels are able to stick tightly to ship bottoms. How could we mimic this ability in a robot?”

Earlier in his career, Sariola has studied surface tension phenomena in microsystem assembly and adhesive surfaces inspired by the foot hair of a gecko.

“The foot hair of a gecko has a peculiar, tree-like structure. Looking with an electron microscope, the surface of the foot looks a bit like forest. It is thanks to this structure that geckos are able to climb walls or hang from the ceiling upside down. Researchers are intrigued by such a structure as it provides inspiration for designing materials that stick firmly to surfaces but also come off easily as needed. These features could greatly benefit a robot climbing a wall or picking up objects.”

We already possess a lot of information about many of nature’s interesting phenomena, but there are still few related commercial applications. According to Veikko Sariola, TUT is a great place for novel research.

“I enjoy the casual atmosphere and the light hierarchy that enable the creation of new ideas and collaborations. TUT also sets a great example when it comes to commercializing research results.”

News submitted by: Tiina Leivo
Keywords: education and studies, science and research, working at tut, about tut