PhD Position in Control and Machine Learning of Soft Robots at ETH Zurich

ETH Zurich, Switzerland is inviting applicants to apply for a PhD position in mechanical engineering. This position is open until filled.

Robots made of soft materials, so-called soft robots, well surpass the limited degrees of freedom that rigid systems possess and therefore potentially offer adaptable and inherently safe ways of achieving versatile forms in locomotion and manipulation. Soft robots can homogeneously combine actuation, sensing, and structure in one composite. In our lab, we develop continuously deformable robots using compliant materials and intelligent sensors whose properties resemble those of living organisms. These soft robots can be used more flexibly and are safer than conventional ones when interacting with humans and surroundings. The vision of the project is to evolve soft robotic systems from the realm of proof-of-concept, one-off prototypes into capable and reliable machines that can morph to tackle challenging tasks in manipulation and locomotion. One of the core challenges to overcome and realize the project’s vision is the development of soft robotic “brains”. Robotic “brains” are needed to fully exploit the unique properties of soft robots and make them useful for real-world applications. The controller within a robotic brain relies on a fast and representative model of the robotic “body” that is to be controlled. However, accurately modeling a deformable material under controlled actuation and/or interacting with the environment is complex and computationally slow because of the infinite dimensions of the material. Control approaches used for traditional robotic systems made of rigid links do not extend to the control of soft robots. It is important to develop new models and controllers for soft robots to enable them to perform challenging locomotion or manipulation tasks that surpass the capabilities of rigid robots.

You conceive and validate model-based controllers and reinforcement learning techniques that can perform difficult tasks requiring interaction with a robot’s surroundings. You advance the state of the art of the current modeling approaches used in the dynamic closed-loop control of soft continuum robots. With your approach, you encapsulate non-linear deformations of hyperelastic materials in real-time. Your model-based controllers become basic building blocks in a reinforcement learning framework. Your self-developed frameworks allow soft robots to learn advanced shapeshifting and autonomous manipulation capabilities for dexterous tasks. You continuously design, simulate, and test your control and learning algorithms on your deformable robots so that they dexterously interact with an inherently deformable world. You develop algorithms that make soft robots move in surprisingly dexterous ways. Your system modeling and control approach will be design-agnostic and user-friendly to facilitate broad adoption in the robotics community. You will create an open-source control and learning framework for soft robots. The development of such a framework will be facilitated through active collaborations with other researchers working on numerical simulations of physical systems such as SOFA and on toolboxes for dynamical systems modeling such as Drake.

You are extremely curious, highly driven, greatly independent, and you want to make a real difference with your research. Through your prior experiences, you have shown your understanding in: A foundational understanding of control and learning methods is essential for the successful completion of this proposed doctoral research program. It would be greatly advantageous if you are already proficient in C++ and Python. You will be able to collaborate with other research labs, and you will have access to support from R&D experts, scientists, engineers, and doctoral students with background in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science.

ETH Zurich is one of the world’s leading universities specialising in science and technology. We are renowned for our excellent education, cutting-edge fundamental research and direct transfer of new knowledge into society. Over 30,000 people from more than 120 countries find our university to be a place that promotes independent thinking and an environment that inspires excellence. Located in the heart of Europe, yet forging connections all over the world, we work together to develop solutions for the global challenges of today and tomorrow.
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