The world’s population is graying rapidly. According to the United Nations 2017 World Population Ageing report, in 2017 there were 962 million seniors 60 years or older, 137 million of whom were 80 or older. By 2050, the U.N. projects there will be almost 2.1 billion older people, with 452 million aged 80 and over. The need for caregivers increases with growing numbers of older people, especially the elderly. Who will provide the care? The answer could be robotic caregivers.

As robots become more capable, hard surfaces present a challenge to robot-human interaction. Engineers at Purdue‘s College of Engineering have developed technology for 3D printing soft robots with conventional 3D printers. Called architected soft machines or ASMs, the soft robots form the external surfaces of more conventional mechanical and electronic devices. ASMs can perform complex motions such as gripping and crawling; they can stretch to more than 900 percent of their length. In place of muscles, miniaturized motors pull nylon lines attached to limbs.

The Purdue ASM design process has three stages: a computer-aided design for the shape, CAD file painting to indicate joints and movement directions, and CAD model conversion to an ASM file for 3D printing. According to Ramses Martinez, an assistant professor in the Purdue’s School of Industrial Engineering and in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, “The capability of ASMs to change their body configuration and gait to adapt to a wide variety of environments has the potential to not only improve caregiving but also disaster-response robotics.”

Future applications could include lifting patients or holding elderly patients’ hands, ready to catch them if they stumble while walking. We also see a potential huge advance in fall detection: a soft-surface robot could not only monitor for falls, but also pick up or help the person rise and, if necessary, place them in an autonomous car or ambulance for transport to a medical facility. Technology may prove to be the solution to a caregiver shortage.