Sea Creatures Inspire New Generation Of Soft Robotics
August 17, 2012

Sea Creatures Inspire New Generation Of Soft Robotics


Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Lately, robotics scientists have been turning to nature for inspiration in designing and building cutting edge machines. Over the past year or two, we have seen prototypes for everything from robotic hawks to mechanical cockroaches.

A team from Harvard University is now developing “soft robots” that are inspired by sea creatures like squids and octopuses. These silicon-based creations not only have a wide range of flexibility, they can also change color like their cephalopod brethren thanks to dyes that the engineers pump through their translucent exterior.

"When we began working on soft robots, we were inspired by soft organisms, including octopi and squid," said project engineer Stephen Morin, who co-authored a report on his team´s work that was published this week in the journal Science.

"One of the fascinating characteristics of these animals is their ability to control their appearance, and that inspired us to take this idea further and explore dynamic coloration,” he said. “I think the important thing we've shown in this paper is that even when using simple systems — in this case we have simple, open-ended micro-channels — you can achieve a great deal in terms of your ability to camouflage an object, or to display where an object is."

In addition to being able to change color, the robots´ micro-channels allow for scientists to pump heated or cooled liquids into the robots, making them able to “change color” in the infrared spectrum.

The coloring, or camouflage, ability developed for the robots is the latest advance in the evolution of soft robots. In 2011, the team from Harvard published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that unveiled the flexible creepy crawlies.

The scientists used 3-D printers to hatch their creations as a simple mold that is then filled with a layer of silicon. The micro-channels that are then carved out of the silicon allow for the robots color changing ability. The robot is then finished with one more layer of silicon. The total cost per robot is about $10.

Morin said he envisions the new robots with their color changing ability as a way to send signals to both other robots and humans. He said the machines could use brilliant or glow-in-the-dark colors during exploration or search and rescue operations that are staged in dimly-lit environments.

Future work with the soft robots will be focused on fine tuning their camouflage ability. According to Morin, this would include adding layers of complexity, possibly including the use of valves or other mechanisms. The team also envisions the robots having the capacity to operate this color change system autonomously.

Most importantly, Morin said he hopes the team´s work on soft robots will inspire other scientists to look at nature or robotics for unorthodox solutions.

“What we hope is that this work can inspire other researchers to think about these problems and approach them from different angles,” he continued. “There are many biologists who are studying animal behavior as it relates to camouflage, and they use different models to do that. We think something like this might enable them to explore new questions, and that will be valuable.”