Science News

The First-Ever Soft Robot Is A Tiny Octopus

There’s a new addition to the growing zoo of robot animals: a squishy octopus.

A team of engineers from Harvard University has created the first ever completely soft robot in the shape of a palm-sized octopus, the BBC reports. They made the “octobot” by pouring liquid silicone into a mold shaped like an octopus, with the legs from a 3D printer.

The silicone components are of varying stiffness, and the bot operates by a chemical reaction that pushes gas out of tiny chambers in its legs. This means the robot does not need any batteries or wires and has absolutely no hard components.

To enable the octopus to move, a series of limb movements has been pre-programmed into a minuscule circuit board crafted from tiny pipes. This “fluid logic circuit” has valves that allow gas to flow and inflate the chambers in the octopus legs.

Gas is pumped into the circuit by a small fuel cell of hydrogen peroxide. It produces a chemical reaction when left with platinum particles left over from the 3D printing process.

The octobot can’t quite crawl around just yet, though, Its movements are limited to sitting in one spot and alternating its eight legs in a slow, can-can dance.

But since this octo-dance is powered solely by the robot’s pneumatic design, the researchers say their invention is a big leap for soft robotics.

Ryan Truby, one of the researchers, says, “Many of the previous embodiments required tethers to external controllers or power sources.” He explains,

What we’ve tried to do is actually to replace these hardware components entirely and have a completely soft robotic system.

Michael Wehner, the lead author on the study, says, “We think the octopus just looks cool.” He adds, “We thought a pretty cool-looking octopus might help get people on our side — convert people to soft robotics.”

Jonathan Rossiter, who heads the soft robotics group at the Bristol Robotics Lab, said the engineers had accomplished something quite revolutionary.

Researchers worldwide have been working on soft robots for some time, and have had trouble “putting them all together.” Rossiter says this octobot can serve as a springboard for others working in this field.

Truby and Wehner are hopeful that soft robots can soon be useful in improbably surgical procedures or difficult search-and-rescue missions. Tasks like these are impossible for more conventional, rigid robots, which are commonly used in structured, rigid environments.

The invention was published in the journal Nature.

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