Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands) Early career award for pioneering research on soft robotics

Most people will associate robots with hard machines, controlled by a central computer that has to think about each and every step. Soft robots are different. They are made of soft, flexible materials that respond to changes in their environment without outside control. This makes them ideally suited for applications in healthcare, for example. Bas Overvelde, associate professor at the department of Mechanical Engineering, is our main expert in this new and exciting field. Today, he and eleven other young Dutch researchers received an Early Career Award from the KNAW. The award is in recognition of their innovative and original work.

“Soft robots look and feel very different from the hard, rigid robots we typically encounter,” says Overvelde. Soft robots respond to stimuli such as air pressure or light. Their movements result from the reaction and deformation of the material, which is where the intelligence lies. That leaves a lot of room for complex possibilities.

“They are ideally suited for places where robots have to deal with fragile objects, such as fruits, or with people, such as in healthcare. An important advantage is also that they work without the need for a central computer. They move and react to their environment thanks to built-in reflexes in the robot body.”

Artificial heart

In his research, Overvelde takes inspiration from examples from biology, and tries to mimic them in artificial systems. Among other things, he is working on developing an artificial heart made of soft material that works in a more natural way than existing artificial hearts. “This will hopefully contribute in the future to an improved and more natural interaction with our bodies, which in turn can provide a better quality of life for patients,” Overvelde says.

The researcher is delighted with the award. “Winning the KNAW early career award is an encouraging recognition for our soft robotics research. It is fantastic to work with such a fine and inspiring team: kudos!”

A cleverly designed pressure valve allows this robotic hand to respond to its environment without computer control (YouTube)
A cleverly designed pressure valve allows this robotic hand to respond to its environment without computer control (YouTube)

Interdisciplinary research

Besides being associate professor in the Soft Robotics group, Bas Overvelde is also leader of the Soft Robotic Matter Group at AMOLF. In his research he works closely with colleagues from other faculties and the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems. “Soft Robotics is a scientific incubator for new directions and research. It brings together researchers from all kinds of disciplines, which continuously generates new ideas.”

“Such an interdisciplinary approach is characteristic of the science we are pioneering in fields such as metamaterials, mechanical intelligence, interaction with humans and design. It requires a very different and creative way of thinking to bring different fields of research together.”

That Overvelde values collaboration with other researchers is also demonstrated by the fact that he joined the Eindhoven Young Academy of Engineers in October, where interdisciplinarity is high on the agenda. In 2020, the researcher received a five-year ERC start-up grant of 1.5 million euros to increase the application perspective of soft robots.

Young Career Award

The annual KNAW Early Career Award was awarded for the fourth time this year. It is aimed at early-career researchers who have done excellent scientific work and are capable of developing innovative and original research ideas. Additional merits in the fields of valorization, outreach, and stimulating other young reseachers, are also taken into consideration.

Each year a maximum of twelve awards are presented, divided among the following domains: humanities, behavioral, social and legal sciences; natural and technical sciences; and medical, medical-biological and health sciences. More information on this year’s winners can be found on the website of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The KNAW Early Career Award consists of a sum of 15,000 euros and an artwork. The money may be spent at the discretion of the winners on their own research careers.

More information

Learn more about soft robotics and Bas Overvelde’s research here: