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A team of Harvard scientists led by chemistry professor George M. Whitesides ’60 has developed a flexible robot inspired by animals without skeletons.
The new robot is more resistant to damage and more maneuverable than existing metal robots, Whitesides said.
The device is made of a flexible elastomer similar to the caulk used to seal bathtubs. Whitesides said it represents a new class of robots that can provide additional capabilities without necessarily replacing the conventional robot.
Adam A. Stokes, a postdoctoral fellow who works with Whitesides, said the robot, whose development was funded by the Pentagon, could potentially be used for applications ranging from search and rescue to surgery.
“Our soft devices have none of the elements that would comprise a traditional robot,” Stokes said. “This gives them several unique aspects: low cost, flexibility, and agility.”
The five-inch-long robot design mimics the flexibility of squids but assumes a crawling, human-like form. Its four limbs are controlled by pumped air.
“These robots are in some ways more resistant to damage than structures that have metal rods and strings in them,” Whitesides said.
The current model can move but cannot perform other functions like picking up items and turning, and it is still tethered to a gas pump. But the researchers are investigating ways to give the robot more of the capabilities of conventional robots.
“Ultimately, we’re looking for robots that don’t have a tether, a pressurized gas source. It would be nice to think about making devices that can move freely,” Whitesides said. “There’s no question that one can combine functions.”
Whitesides said that the team is looking into integrating visual capabilities into the robot.
The team’s most recent model comes after years of research. “We’ve been working at this for a few years now,” Whitesides said. “Our first publication was a year ago, and that device just picked something up—it didn’t move.”
Whitesides’ team is not alone in researching flexible robot design. Similar projects are underway at MIT and Tufts.
“I think the robotics community is just beginning to wake up to the idea of using elastomers as components for making robots,” Whitesides said. “We are all collectively beginning to develop this class of objects to see what they can do.”
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