Flexible robot wiggles through tight places

Introducing a new type of robot: a soft robot. Inspired by animals that don't have a hard skeleton, the robot is made with soft lithography materials by the Harvard man who pioneered the flexible technology.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

George Whitesides, the Harvard professor who has pioneered lab-on-a-chip technology using soft lithography, has created a new kind of robot that can crawl into tight spaces.

It's soft-bodied, and inspired by animals that have no internal skeleton. Rob Shepherd, a post-doc in Whitesides' lab told me:

"We have built a prototype soft robot that is capable of locomotion in multiple gaits. Though there may be several applications for this robot, we are focused on the scientific and technical development of soft robots in general."

Designed to behave like squids and worms, the robot was also made without sensors. It used a pneumatic actuation with low pressure air to get around -- the air was pumped in through a tube. The point of this experiment was to show that a soft robot only needs a simple design and control to move.

The soft robots are not meant to replace the ones that are hard and bulky, but rather be used for different applications. Using cheaper (and softer) material enabled the scientists to iterate designs as they saw fit.

So what's the issue with making robots with soft skin? It's easy to puncture. That's what the scientists are working on improving.

The paper was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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