Meet the World’s First Fully Squishy Robot

Till this point in time, all the robots we can think of are almost certainly composed of metal, from the circuitry to the chassis. Metals have become almost synonymous with the entire concept of machines and, by extension, robots. Hence, it will undoubtedly come as a surprise that a team of scientists and engineers from varied backgrounds in 3D printing, microfluidics, mechanical engineering and biology have successfully built a working model of the world’s first independent, untethered, entirely soft robot at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Led by Robert Wood, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Jennifer A. Lewis, the Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard SEAS, the team was successful in overcoming challenges which have puzzled researchers ever since efforts to create soft robots began.

One of the most easily apparent challenges was eliminating the need for rigid parts which are an integral part of components vital for the functioning of the robot, like batteries and circuit boards. Until now, the solution was to tether the robot to an external system or simply rigging the soft-bodied robot with rigid components. The Harvard team combated this issue by creating a new kind of energy mechanism.

The robot, named ‘Octobot’ is pneumatic based, i.e, it derives it’s power from air or gas under pressure. The reaction responsible for providing energy to the Octobot converts liquid fuel into a large amount of hydrogen peroxide gas, which rapidly expands and inflates the robot’s limbs.

Michael Wehner, one of the co-first authors of the paper remarks, “Fuel sources for soft robots have always relied on some type of rigid components. 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.”

The design for the robot was inspired by the biological structure of octopuses, which are able to perform extraordinary feats of strength and nimbleness without any internal skeletal structure or rigid support system.

At present, the robot is only able to move its limbs in a slow fashion to walk at a rather underwhelming pace, but the researchers are confident that this simple design could soon be improved upon into more complex applications which will be able to accomplish much more in a faster way. The team is now hoping to design an octobot that can not only walk but also crawl, swim and interact with its immediate environment in new ways. The device can be quickly manufactured by using 3 manufacturing techniques: 3D printing, molding, and soft lithography.

Ryan Truby, a graduate student in the Lewis lab and co-first author of the paper said, “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,”

The field of soft robotics can prove to be instrumental in many areas where ordinary rigid machinery fails, most notably surgery and medicine. One of the most important applications of this technology is in prosthetic design. Soft robots could prove to be instrumental in creating new forms of heart assist devices or soft robotic gloves which could prove immensely useful in surgery.

You can watch Octobot in action by visiting the following link:

About Kartikey Sharma

I am an IB student in my final year at school. Born and bred in Jaipur, Rajasthan, I am told by friends and colleagues that I can be accurately categorised as a 'geek of the highest order'. I am passionate about learning about the mysterious rules of nature and mathematics, understanding why they are like that, what other people are doing with them, and explaining these laws in great detail to the annoyance of my friends. Aside from this, I am also fond of reading post-1960's literature, having pizza, occasionally critiquing sitcoms, and posing for pictures in trenchcoats. My favourite number is 42. At SpectralHues, I take the opportunity to explore the happenings of science, engineering, and space technology and bring them to you. I hope you enjoy reading my articles as much as I enjoy writing them.


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