Rigid and clunky robots may soon be relegated to the past, as a robotics team from Harvard University just created an ambidextrous automation using flexible polymers. The innovative flexible robot is able to negotiate rough terrain and perform delicate tasks that were previously thought impossible for automatons. The team’s research, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, cited inspiration from the natural world – the prototype’s design is modeled after starfish, worms and squid.
The robot uses a series of small, inflatable chambers embedded within its legs and its central spine to move. These chambers are contained within a rubbery polymer layer and attached to a non-flexible layer – when the chambers fill with air they bend the robot’s skin. The team hopes that their flexible robot will be able to outmatch its more rigid counterparts – speaking about their invention, George Whitesides, leader of the Harvard team, said that the pneumatically driven robot would be able to overcome all current robotic limitations.
“I could see soft robots being especially useful for tasks where you use fingers, like surgery, or in which delicate objects such as raw eggs are being manipulated,” said Prof Whitesides speaking to The Guardian. “They have a low centre of gravity and so should also be more stable. Also in hazardous locations such as a nuclear power plant like Fukushima after an accident, there might be instances in which a wheeled robot would be no good if there are piles of rubble about.”
The current robot is 18cm across and is capable of lifting one leg off the ground while leaving the other three to ground itself. In demonstrations, the team displayed the prototype’s ability to crawl under a glass plate suspended 2cm above the ground in less than a minute. Researchers eventually want to improve the robot’s speed, but were pleased that it did not break from constant inflation and deflation. They added that the robot can even traverse on a variety of surfaces including felt cloth, gravel, mud and Jell-O.
Hopefully, we will soon have robots that will be able to squeeze into the tightest spaces in order to help with search and rescue operations and save lives. Click here to see a video of the robot in action.