Researchers have created a large, flexible robot that can move on its own, resist fire and cold, and even survive being run over by a car. It also looks like a horribly injured person trying to slowly crawl away from a serial killer or possibly a monstrous four-pronged worm, but sometimes nightmare fuel is the price of progress.
The soft robot was designed and developed by members of the Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Tiny robots with soft bodies have been made in the past, but in comparison the new robot is huge. It’s a meter long and able to carry seven-and-a-half pounds.
One of the researchers who worked on the project, Michael Tolley, said the team wanted to show that a soft robot could move on its own, and that sometimes softer is better when it comes to robotics.
“Earlier versions of soft robots were all tethered, which works fine in some applications, but what we wanted to do was challenge people’s concept of what a robot has to look like,” said Tolley, a research associate in materials science and mechanical engineering at the Wyss Institute and the study’s first author. “We think the reason people have settled on using metal and rigid materials for robots is because they’re easier to model and control. This work is very inspired by nature, and we wanted to demonstrate that soft materials can also be the basis for robots.”
The robot’s “muscles” are powerful air micro-compressors that move its four limbs. It’s body is made of composite silicone rubber impregnated with hollow glass microspheres to lower its weight, and its bottom is made of Kevlar. The robot is amazingly tough, and the designers see applications for sending it into disaster sites or hazardous environments, anywhere it’s not safe for humans to go. A soft robot is also less likely to injure a human and might be able to work more closely with them than today’s metallic machines.
“One of the things that limit our imagination is that factory robots are very large and scary and dangerous to be around,” Tolley said. “As a lay person, you can’t just walk into a factory where industrial robots are working. But a soft system is inherently less dangerous, so you can start to interact with it more, and I think that opens up many more opportunities.”
Just make them cuter. Please.