Flexible Robot Can Change Gait, Travel Over Various Terrain
November 29, 2011

Flexible Robot Can Change Gait, Travel Over Various Terrain

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A team of Harvard University scientists have developed a new flexible robot that can crawl, adjust its gait, squeeze under obstacles, and slide its way through tight spaces.

According to BBC News Science Editor Paul Rincon, the "soft" robot was inspired by creatures such as the squid and the starfish, and has "several" advantages over more rigid, traditional style machines that have wheels or treads, including a greater array of movement types and less difficulty traversing challenging types of terrain.

"The prototype has limbs made from soft, elastic polymers that are driven pneumatically with low-pressure air," the Guardian reported in a Monday article. "Inspired by animals“¦ that lack hard internal skeletons, each of the robot's legs can be independently controlled to achieve a range of motions."

Furthermore, the Guardian notes that the robot is so flexible that it is able to use a variety of different movement types to shimmy its way under a glass plate suspended just two centimeters off the ground. Not only that, but Rincon notes that it was able to pull off this incredible feat in less than a minute.

The research was led by Harvard chemist George M. Whitesides and features experts from the university's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, as well as the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. It has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the abstract to their research, Whitesides and his colleagues describe their work as "a unique class of locomotive robot“¦ composed exclusively of soft materials (elastomeric polymers)“¦  Soft lithography was used to fabricate a pneumatically actuated robot capable of sophisticated locomotion (e.g., fluid movement of limbs and multiple gaits)."

"This robot is quadrupedal," they added. "It uses no sensors, only five actuators, and a simple pneumatic valving system that operates at low pressures (< 10 psi). A combination of crawling and undulation gaits allowed this robot to navigate a difficult obstacle. This demonstration illustrates an advantage of soft robotics: They are systems in which simple types of actuation produce complex motion."

The Associated Press (AP) said that the robot is five inches long and took two months to build. Its four legs can be controlled separately, either manually or through a computer, by pumping air into the limbs, according to the AP.

The project was funded by the Pentagon's research group, the wire service added, and while it was able to successfully navigate an obstacle course which included "a variety of surfaces including felt cloth, gravel, mud and even Jell-O," it was "tethered to an external power source and scientists need to find a way to integrate the source before it can be deployed in the real world."


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