The Future Of Robotics Is Soft And Practically Indestructible

Eric Hopton for – Your Universe Online

Fire, snow, water – and being crushed by a car – are no problem for a new “bio-inspired” robot. The science of soft robotics has taken a major leap forward with the production of the first ever “untethered” soft robot that can get up and walk freely, no longer relying on a cord for power or control.

Developers from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, along with colleagues from the Cornell School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, have created the revolutionary new model after intensive research and experiment. Soft robotics draws on the natural world and biological organisms for inspiration and an article by Peter Reuell for the Harvard Gazzette reveals just how life-like the quadruped robot is. The non-rigid structure of animals like starfish and squid provided the template for this construction and the similarities in shape and movement are startling.

[ Watch the Video: Cutting The Cord On Soft Robots ]

Traditional concepts of what a robot should look like and the constraints of construction meant that traditional robotic science has focused on the use of rigid materials. This is partly due to the need for the machines to carry a considerable amount of heavy materials and technology. As a result, early trials of soft robots only produced relatively small models. However, the Harvard/Wyss creation is over half a meter in length and can carry over 7 pounds of micro-compressors, batteries, and control systems on its back. This presented the developers with a lot of hurdles. As Michael Tolley, the paper’s first author and a research associate in materials science and mechanical engineering at the Wyss Institute, says “There are materials challenges and there are design challenges and there are control challenges.”

In the end the team chose a material that was a composite of stiff rubber, silicone elastomer and polyaramid fabric. In order to reduce the weight carried by the robot, the rubber was impregnated with tiny spheres of hollow glass and the base was formed from a tough light Kevlar. The video shows just how tough the end product is. As the robot is put through its paces it emerges unscathed after being subjected to fire, snow – and even the indignity of being run over by a car. It can also function for several hours on a full battery charge.

Motion and propulsion are driven by hydraulics. To meet the demands of size and weight, the robot needed to withstand internal pressures of up to 16 pounds per square inch – more than double that of previous designs.

Details of the research have been published in the journal Soft Robotics. The report describes just how tough the robot is; resistant to water, corrosion, UV damage, fire and a wide range of temperatures and environments. In terms of the developers’ ambitions, this is a rudimentary model with massive scope for improvement. But the potential uses for this type of construct, including military and espionage deployment, medical applications, and the ability to enter environments which are too hostile for human exploration will drive research forward.


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