How might this squishy 'octobot' alter the course of robotics?

Harvard University researchers have created the first autonomous, entirely soft robot. But what can it do?

Step aside, T-800 and R2-D2. The future of robotics is on the horizon, and it is squishy.

Harvard researchers have engineered the first robot that is both autonomous and completely soft-bodied. The fleshy automaton, described Thursday in the journal Nature, runs on hydrogen peroxide and was designed to look like a small octopus. This "octobot," researchers say, is a major step toward developing functional robots that don’t need hard skeletons or rigid moving parts.

“One long-standing vision for the field of soft robotics has been to create robots that are entirely soft, but the struggle has always been in replacing rigid components like batteries and electronic controls with analogous soft systems and then putting it all together,” said co-author Robert Wood, a professor of engineering at Harvard, in a statement.

Wood and colleagues used 3-D printing to build the octobot’s rubbery body. Inside, a series of microscopic fluid channels – a kind of simple brain – interact much like an electronic circuit board would. The robot is powered by hydrogen peroxide, which enters the body through small reservoirs and flows into the robot's brain. When the solution reacts with the platinum fluid channels, it breaks down into water and oxygen gas, which inflate the robot’s tentacles.

Despite having no skeleton, octopuses are remarkably powerful creatures. Some species have been known to break reinforced acrylic glass with their muscular tentacles. So when developing soft robots, which need to be both functional and flexible, the octopus provides an excellent biological model.

But the octobot isn’t the first soft-bodied, bio-inspired robot. Researchers from Case Western Reserve University have developed a "biohybrid" robot powered by sea slug muscles, and in 2015, Nicholas Bartlett, a PhD student at Harvard’s microrobotics lab, helped create a frog-like robot that could make “more than 30 untethered hops.”

“Evolution has had a head start on us for many millions of years,” Bartlett said. “Why not take tried-and-tested designs and use them for inspiration with our machines?”

For now, Harvard’s octobot only looks the part: it has a single function, to expand and contract its tentacles, and does nothing else. But with a flexible body and autonomous functionality, researchers say it paves the way for more sophisticated soft robots. These types of robots might adapt more easily to changing natural environments, and soft exteriors could make them safer for commercial and home use.

“Soft robots and soft material technologies are definitely needed if we expect to deploy autonomous machines in the home or in natural environments,” Barry Trimmer, a roboticist at Tufts University and editor-in-chief of the journal Soft Robotics, told NPR. “They have the potential to be more robust, safe and biocompatible than current robots.”

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