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Harvard Develops Soft Robot that Keep Moving Even After Getting Run Over by a Car


Image credit: Harvard University

You should be familiar with the typical images of robots with metal structures like Terminator or iRobot. However, you would be amazed at an X-shaped soft-bodied robot, moving around just like a headless toy. This kind of soft robot has been developed by Roger Wood’s lab at HarvardUniversity. With superb properties, such robot could stand the big fire or get run over by a car and thus turning out completely harmed.

The design of this pneumatic soft-bodied robot was from the idea inspired by organisms moving without rigid structures. This would enable them to have interaction with humans in a more safe way than hard units in the traditional sense. It could be possibly applied to the search and rescue work or even in chemical disasters. With much improvement on the previous models, the latest design is stronger and larger characteristic of one distinct advantage– it is not tethered to controls or a power source.

According to Michael Tolley, one of the leading team members, being tethered, the earlier versions of soft robots could operate well in some applications, however they wanted to challenge the general concept of what a robot should look like, because the reason people resorted to use of metal and rigid materials for making robots was that it was much easier to model and control them. What they were doing was really inspired by nature, so they were intended to show people that soft materials could be the basis for robots as well.


Image credit: Harvard University/Joe Sherman

With length of 0.65 meters, the newest design was able to carry 3.4 kg of equipment on its back. Since it was much larger than those tethered ones of previous designs, The air pressure necessary for the machine operation should be doubled, which was increased from 7 pounds per square inch (psi) up to 16 psi.

Talking of the current design, Tolley said that if you wanted to set up the basic components such as micro-compressors, controllers, and batteries necessary to get it work on an untethered robot, you should have a design that were capable of carrying all those parts, you should target at something that could cope with much higher pressures. Therefore, you have to face some challenges related to design and materials as well as control challenges.

Finally, the material which could meet all requirements was a composite silicone rubber, with characters of being flexible and light but strong. In order to strengthen rubber, glass microspheres were intently added, thus producing tiny air pockets that would make the design lighter. Coated with Kevlar, the bottom could prevent the unit from being harmed when it would cross potentially-damaging terrain.

As tested against extreme temperatures, submersion in water, fire, and even in the case of its legs run over by a car, this robot has shown no adverse effects. To perfect the current version, the team would add some more sensors, thus making the robot move more rapidly in the future.

Source: Harvard University