Scientists from Harvard University, in the leadership of Chemistry professor George M. Whitesides, have built a new type of soft and flexible robot inspired by body structure of squid and starfish that can crawl, roll and squeeze under barriers.
These robots can squeeze its way through a mouse hole which will be used in the future in earthquake-relief efforts or on the field of battle. They have a low center of gravity and can be used in risky locations where a wheeled robot would not be able to crawl if there are piles of rubble about.
The robots were built by using a special material referred to as “elastomeric polymers”, which is same as caulk used to seal bathtubs. It is more resistant than robots made of rigid and harder materials to damage from rocks or falling tree limbs, although the soft skin can be easily damaged by objects like broken glass. The materials are cheap and can be quickly produced, and a 3D printer is used to produce the mold of soft robots. Whitesides and his teams take advantage of 3D printing technology that he can print directly out of idea and look the failure trying to find something that works better. “You want to do that rapidly, to get your mistakes out of the way.”says Whitesides.
These robots' motion is driven by compressed air, which causes the small chambers in the material to be filled by air. In the demonstration, the robot successfully moved through a gap just 2 cm high in less than 60 seconds by executing a combination of co-ordinate movements.
“Ultimately, we’re looking for robots that don’t have a tether, a pressurized gas source. It would be nice to think about making devices that can move freely,” Whitesides said. “There’s no question that one can combine functions.”
He’s also working on a robot which can replace hard clamps for surgery in the hospital, gently moving organs aside so that surgeons can perform delicate procedures without worrying about damaging the body.
(photo credit: George Whitesides Laboratory)
Watch a video of the soft robot wiggling its way underneath a pane of glass:
Video of how the robots are constructed:
More technical information can be found in the Whiteside group’s paper, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
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