Aug 25, 2016 | By Alec

When you think about robots, the first thing that comes to mind are clunky, metallic and humanoid shapes that perform certain tasks, but are easily outwitted by human heroes. It’s an image that has been carefully cultivated through Science Fiction, but one that might not have anything to do with robotics in the near future. Instead, soft robotics – that are flexible, adaptable and usable in any environment – seems to be the name of the game. And a team of Harvard researchers just realized a very important step in the development of soft robotics: the octobot, the world’s first 3D printed entirely soft and autonomous robot.

Of course this is not the first flexible and soft robot we’ve seen. About a year ago, engineers from Cornell revealed their successes in 3D printing soft actuators that mimic the muscles of octopus tentacles, while Harvard researchers have been focusing on soft robotics for some time as well. Just earlier this summer, we saw 3D printed robotic muscles made from an electroactive polymer and even a 3D printed ‘living’ biohybrid stingray made from rat tissue and gold.

But while all those creations relied on some rigid parts (usually the batteries, circuit boards and so on), this latest innovation is different for being completely flexible. It doesn’t even feature rigid electronics, but is controlled by microfluidic chemical reactions – through a system that is also flexible. Nicknamed the octobot, for its striking resemblance to octopuses, it could pave the way for a completely new generation of soft autonomous machines that are very widely applicable.

This fantastic 3D printed octobot has been developed by a team of researchers led by Wyss Core Faculty members Robert Wood, Ph.D., and Jennifer Lewis, Sc.D. They are also the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering, respectively. The octobot has already been unveiled in the journal Nature, and has been very well received.

As professor Wood explained, they sought to break through the existing reality that soft robotics are never 100 percent soft. “One long-standing vision for the field of soft robotics has been to create robots that are entirely soft, but the struggle has always been in replacing rigid components like batteries and electronic controls with analogous soft systems and then putting it all together,” said Wood. “This research demonstrates that we can easily manufacture the key components of a simple, entirely soft robot, which lays the foundation for more complex designs.”

Their solution has been to replace those key movement components with an entirely soft alternative steeped in pneumatic principles – powered by gas under pressure. Inside the soft octopi body, a small amount of liquid fuel (hydrogen peroxide) is transformed into gas through chemical processes, which flows into the many arms and inflates them. As co-author and postdoc researcher Michael Wehner explained, this creates adequate movement to completely do away with rigid part. “The wonderful thing about hydrogen peroxide is that a simple reaction between the chemical and a catalyst -- in this case platinum -- allows us to replace rigid power sources,” he said.

But none of this would be possible without 3D printing, as the fuel, circuits, and motors are all directly 3D printed into the body. “Through our hybrid assembly approach, we were able to 3D print each of the functional components required within the soft robot body, including the fuel storage, power and actuation, in a rapid manner,” professor Lewis said. “The octobot is a simple embodiment designed to demonstrate our integrated design and additive fabrication strategy for embedding autonomous functionality.”

Inspiration for the octobot obviously came from octopuses, which have long been a source of inspiration for soft robotics specialists – especially thanks to their ability to perform incredible feats of strength and dexterity despite having no internal skeleton. We’ve all seen the clips of octopuses escaping from aquaria through the tiniest gaps.

But right now, the octobot can do little more than flail around, with the ‘autonomous’ part referring to the octobot’s ability to decide when to flex its limbs. Future versions of the octobot will hopefully be able to crawl, walk, and otherwise deliberately perform a series of tasks. And even to reach this point, hundreds of octobots were 3D printed to test various pneumatic systems. But we have to start somewhere. To control the flailing, the Harvard team harnessed a microfluidic logic circuit (based on work from chemist and co-author professor George Whitesides). This circuit, a soft analog version of an electronic oscillator, controls the transformation of hydrogen peroxide into gas. The octobot holds enough fuel for about 8 minutes of action.

But aside from the 3D printing portion, the rest of the manufacturing process is quite simple and scalable as well – paving the way for far more complex designs. “The entire system is simple to fabricate, by combining three fabrication methods — soft lithography, molding and 3D printing — we can quickly manufacture these devices,” said graduate student and co-first author Ryan Truby. “This research is a proof of concept. We hope that our approach for creating autonomous soft robots inspires roboticists, material scientists and researchers focused on advanced manufacturing.”

Next up are similarly 3D printed octobots that can crawl, swim and interact with its surroundings, and that would be a massive step in the right direction. The researchers are currently looking into flexible sensors that allow for navigation. In the near future, that would enable swarms of octobots to be used for search and rescue missions on the high seas, oceanic temperature sensing, and military surveillance.

 

 

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