Machines able to pick apples with the gentleness of a human hand. Prostheses with the dexterity of the limbs they are designed to replace.
These devices are the focus of a Washington State University Tri-Cities doctoral student studying soft robotics who recently received a financial boost for his efforts.
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Cameron Hohimer is one of five WSU students earn a research fellowship from the National Science Foundation: a $34,000 stipend and $12,000 for tuition and other education expenses.
About 2,000 graduate students around the country out of 17,000 applicants received the fellowships, a release said.
Hohimer, a 2002 Hanford High School graduate, said the fellowship will be a big help, allowing him to focus solely on his doctorate and research. And given the complexity of his work trying to create mechanical devices as supple and strong as flesh and bone, the more energy he can put into his research the better.
“I want to make something that is robust and can do a lot of things but do them well,” he said.
Hohimer is in his second year of his doctorate but has been at WSU Tri-Cities since 2011. He first studied at Walla Walla Community College following a six-year stint in the Navy. His undergraduate degree is in mechanical engineering and was partially inspired by years of watching his grandfather tinker with machines.
In soft robotics, Hohimer said his goal is to take a fairly common aspect of mechanical engineering, an actuator or motor, and give it free range of motion rather than a limited set of movements.
“It’s relatively easy to model a rigid actuator,” he said. “Soft robotics, with their unique geometry, are much more difficult to mathematically model.”
Hohimer has worked with others at WSU Tri-Cities on a new apple-picking machine to improve orchard harvesting and he’s delved into applying soft robotics to prosthetic development as well.
But his research has also allowed him to pursue his fascination with 3D printers, which he began working with during his undergraduate studies. The devices use plastic or other material to create three-dimensional objects from a computer-based design and Hohimer built a few and helped others construct them as well.
3D printing provides a unique ability to easily embed sensors necessary for soft robotics devices rather than wedding the components in a more complex manufacturing process.
“It can greatly reduce the cost of building prototypes which is a big hurdle in research,” he said.
Changki Mo, an assistant mechanical engineering professor at the university, is Hohimer’s faculty adviser and lauded him for landing the fellowship. Mo said soft robotics still has a ways to go in being commercially viable but it is “going to be promising in the future.”
“I’m sure his outcomes will be great,” he said of Hohimer’s research.
Having time to dedicate to his research has been one of Hohimer’s bigger challenges, as he’s had to split his time between being a teaching assistant and an intern at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
“Being able to not spend additional hours on the side to make it all work is a big bonus,” Hohimer said.