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Rise of the (soft) robots

A soft robot that can crawl across surfaces and under obstacles has been created by a research team based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Led by chemist George Whitesides of Harvard University, the team’s robot eschews the hard joints, hydraulics and motors of current robot technology in favour of low-pressure air.

Inspired by starfish, squid and worms, their squishy four-armed creation lacks any kind of skeleton. Instead, air is pumped through valves and tubes made of elastomeric polymers to one of five pneumatic sections. By alternatively inflating and deflating the four leg ‘pneu-nets’ and the fifth body section, the robot can move at a stately 13 metres an hour (shown here, and in another video below).

“Instead of basing this and other designs on highly evolved animals as models, we are using simpler organisms for inspiration,” the team writes in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “These organisms, ones without internal skeletons, suggest designs that are simpler to make and are less expensive than conventional hard robots, and that may, in some respects, be more capable of complex motions and functions.”

The team’s beast was also able to crawl under a 2-centimetre-high barrier, something that would be difficult with a similarly sized hard robot.

Soft systems such as this new one are unlikely to replace more complex hard designs. They lack the ability to carry heavy loads, and paths strewn with sharp objects are necessarily closed to them.

However, the rise of the soft robots could find new applications in areas where their variety of gaits and relative inexpensiveness are advantages. Of particular interest may be tasks that require delicate actions: Whitesides has already demonstrated that similar pneumatic devices can be used to pick things up (see: ‘Soft’ robot has deft touch and video, below).


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