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Harvard Engineering Professor Wood Awarded Medal for Work in Robotics

The John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences sign stands in front of Pierce Hall.
The John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences sign stands in front of Pierce Hall. By Jacqueline S. Chea
By Alexis K. Bolner and Sahana G Srinivasan, Contributing Writers

Robert J. Wood, a Harvard professor of engineering and applied sciences, won the Max Planck-Humboldt Medal last week for his innovations in soft robotics, a subfield of robotics that explores how flexible materials can be used to build robots able to interact with humans and thrive in natural environments.

The medal, awarded jointly by German research organization Max-Planck-Gesellschaft and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, comes with 60,000 Euros in prize money — or around $68,000.

“The selection committee – and myself – were truly impressed by Robert Wood as one of the absolute leaders in the field of micro- and soft robotics worldwide, who manages to continuously push the boundaries of this relatively new, emerging, and very promising field of research,” Max-Planck President Martin Stratmann wrote in an emailed statement. “His work on bioinspired robots made of soft materials has the potential to revolutionize many fields.”

Wood and his teams at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have worked to develop functional artificial muscles, robots that can handle fragile specimens, and biomedical soft robots to use in surgery, among other projects.

“Robots tend to be very very good in constrained regularly shaped environments like warehouses or factory floors, but if you start to put one in a more natural setting, it often fails,” Wood said in an interview. “Soft robotics comes into play to try to get more natural adaptability to unstructured natural environments.”

The medal’s selection committee specifically acknowledged Wood and his team’s creation of "RoboBees": small, robotic bees that mimic the flight of real ones, designed for potential use in disaster relief and agriculture.

Wood now has the opportunity to continue his research in Germany; one goal of the Max Planck-Humboldt awards is to foster collaboration between German and international scientists.

“Basic research is an investment into our future, carrying forward the science of tomorrow,” German Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek wrote in a press release announcing the award. “It enriches our society in many ways: It increases our knowledge and is the seed for ideas and innovations of the future.”

Wood said he is now looking to work with soft robotics expert Oliver Brock at the Technical University of Berlin on soft robots that mimic the nuances of human dexterity.

These robots could eventually give customers five-star treatment, Wood said.

“For example, you might want a robot to be able to unpack your groceries and then make you dinner, or move patients around in a hospital bed and then be able to feed them,” Wood said.

Wood said he is honored to receive the award and sees it as a good indicator of the progress of soft robotics, which he called a “relatively new, young field.”

“I think it speaks to that coming of age, being respected as a very important set of topics to explore within robots, with a lot of not just academic potential, but also potential translational impact as well,” Wood said.

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