DEFCOBOT (Design for Control of Flexible Robots)

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Mechanical Engineering


Flexible robots have light and compliant bodies that allow them to adapt well to unstructured environments. However, due to their deformability, controlling their movements accurately in the presence of disturbances is a challenging task. Additionally, the design and manufacturing of flexible robots is generally conducted without prior analysis of their dynamic performance and involves refinements through successive prototypes. These factors reduce the accuracy and effectiveness of flexible robots in real-world applications, including surgery, inspection and maintenance. Finally, bespoke design and control solutions confine advances in these areas to specific cases. This research aims to produce advanced control methods and design guidelines for different types of flexible robots in order to enhance their performance. To demonstrate the general validity of the proposed methods we have chosen two illustrative applications from our own track record: robot-assisted biopsy and robotic inspection. In the experimental part of the project, the control methods will be validated with two proof-of-concept prototypes from our recent work that are representative of each application. Successful completion of this research will contribute to enhancing the accuracy and effectiveness of flexible robots which is an essential prerequisite for their wider use. Potential applications of the research findings include minimally-invasive robotic surgery, robotic inspection and maintenance.

Planned Impact

The proposed research on control methods for flexible systems subject to disturbances has the potential to produce important advances in control theory, promoting the further growth of this discipline in the UK. The interdisciplinary nature of this research will favour the interaction between mechanical engineering and control theory promoting the training of researchers within this multidisciplinary environment, which is essential for the purpose of developing advanced control theory for practical engineering applications. The experimental part of the project will focus on two practical case studies, one of which related to robotic inspection, which will offer the opportunity to initiate collaboration with industrial partners operating in the areas of inspection and maintenance for nuclear plants. The other case study considered in this research is related to robotic-assisted surgery and will be instrumental to the development of a new family of tools for minimally-invasive diagnosis and intervention. In this respect, the established partnership between our team and industrial partners based in the UK represents an ideal venue for the translation of the research findings into new technologies. In the longer term, this research could be applied to other areas, including manipulation, inspection and maintenance in space.


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Description The intrinsic compliance of soft robots is beneficial for the purpose of safe interactions with people or with the environment but has negative effects on positioning accuracy.
The main achievement of this project consists in a new class of control algorithms for soft robots that allow these systems to achieve high positioning accuracy in spite of unknown external forces. A further advantage of these algorithms is that they are simpler to tune compared to the industry standard and they lead to consistent performance over a wide range of operating conditions. This is a considerable achievement which promotes the use of soft robots in real-world applications.
Exploitation Route Our control algorithms are being implemented for soft robotic manipulators of different sizes across a range of applications in collaboration with industrial partners. In the first instance, we are focussing on the area of minimally invasive surgery, for which our team has a strong track record. This could potentially result in safer and more accurate robotic devices for interventional endoscopy, which would benefit early diagnosis of a range of pathologies.
Sectors Healthcare

Description The implementation of our control algorithms for soft robotic manipulators of different sizes and the experimental testing in realistic operating conditions representative of a range of applications are being pursued in collaboration with industrial partners as part of an Impact Acceleration Account award. The aim of this activity is to validate our findings within the field of minimally invasive surgery, potentially resulting in safer and more accurate robotic devices for interventional endoscopy, and of warehouse automation, which could help to relieve operators from repetitive and physically demanding tasks.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Healthcare,Retail
Description Self-propelled soft robotic endoscopes for next-generation gastrointestinal surgery (ROBOGAST)
Amount £298,586 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/W004224/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2021 
End 12/2022