On September 6th, 2016 we learned about

Soft-bodied robots move around without metal or motors

If science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that robots are amazing, working machines, full of wires, gears, servos and… gas bubbles? While working with metal frames and plastic shells makes sense for many types of robots, research is being done to create softer, squishier automatons as well. This isn’t to create a better talking plush toy, but to create devices that could operate in unusual environments or scenarios, ranging from underwater oil spills to inside the human body. With multiple strategies being developed, we may soon be able to carefully target which kind of squishbot is best suited to a particular task.

Warmth-triggered wiggles

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Singapore University of Technology and Design are collaborating on making tiny, heat sensitive structures out of rubbery polymers. The flexible machines are 3D printed with precision normally used by those in the semi-conductor industry, as the exact shape of these materials is key to their movement. In the layers of printing, tiny points of articulation created. When heat is applied to the ‘bot, the expansion of materials cause the overall structure to flex in prescribed ways. As a proof-of-concept, researchers were able to build a tiny, four-fingered claw that could delicately pick up a bolt over the course of a few seconds, just thanks to being warmed at one end.

From this starting point, researchers are looking to speed up the rubbery robots’ movement, and build them into more tinier, more complex structures. Aside from becoming motorless-machines on Earth, these flexible machines may eventually be able to replace heavier, motorized components on spacecraft. Further expanding their utility, changes in pH levels can be substituted for applied heat, which would allow for triggers on soft, folded devices that operate in a living body. Once in the presence of a specified trigger, the device could unfold itself, releasing medicines on demand, possibly before a patient has even had time to develop symptoms.

Powered by platinum and peroxide

If small-scale movement isn’t what you’re looking for, consider the appropriately squishy ‘octobot.’ 3D printed in the shape of an octopus, each of this robot’s limbs has a channel to allow the flow of hydrogen peroxide, which functions as the robot’s fuel. As the hydrogen peroxide flows throw a tentacle, it comes into contact with flecks of platinum (oh, right, metal again…) which kick off a chemical reaction, filling the chamber with gas. Similar to the points of articulation in the previous ‘bot design, the gas inflates stretchy chambers at a few points of articulation, causing the limb to move in a prescribed manner. The hydrogen peroxide’s flow is then coordinated so that the limbs each flex in support of each other, allowing the squishy robot to “swim” through water.

Smushable octobots are limited by their fuel reservoir, but the concept should scale to allow them to be put into service in different ways. If equipped with a sensor, these water-friendly designs could be used for monitoring activity in the ocean, or collecting data from otherwise dangerous environments, like toxic leaks near oil derricks without the cost of bringing in a larger, more traditional robot to do the job.

Source: Gumby Bots! New Bendable Structures Could Make Origami Machines by Edd Gent, Live Science

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