Harvard researchers have blended organic chemistry, soft materials science, and robotics to create a soft robot inspired by animals like squid and worms.
The soft robot has no hard internal skeleton and uses no sensors. It crawls by using a network of valves and tubes that guide air into and out of four elastomer leg compartments called ‘pneu-nets’ and a body section.
The pneumatically actuated robot can navigate obstacles using one of several gaits--walking, crawling, and slithering--and it can deflate to pass through tiny little gaps (see video below).
According to Whitesides, the advantage of soft robotics is that they demonstrate "simple types of actuation produce complex motion." They are also cheaper to produce than hard metallic robots.
In an earlier experiment, Whitesides and his colleagues created a starfish-shaped gripper using elastic polymers that inflate like balloons for actuation. The soft gripper was able to perform delicate tasks such as picking up eggs.
Impressed by the gripper-bot, Jonathan Rossiter, an engineering lecturer at England's University of Bristol, had this to say last February in Chemical & Engineering News:
The work presented here is exciting not because of fundamental scientific advance, but rather because of the insight of the authors in using conventional technologies to produce extremely novel soft and active devices. There is a sense of organic beauty in these structures and, indeed, the biologically inspired nature of this work results in compact and effective mechanisms which would be difficult to design from scratch.
Soft robots can't yet handle heavy loads or conduct electricity, but the researchers believe that eventually they may be able to by incorporating the right materials.