Scientists from Harvard University have designed the world’s very first autonomous soft robot. Dubbed as the octobot, the innovative automaton integrates the latest advances in mechanical engineering, 3D printing and microfluidics. The breakthrough, the researchers believe, could usher in an entire generation of soft, untethered machines that are capable of moving on their own.
Given that control systems and power sources, like circuit boards and batteries, are usually rigid, soft robots until now relied on external power systems, with some even featuring hard parts. The octobot is the first autonomous robot that is entirely compliant. Speaking about the research, recently published in the Nature journal, Robert Wood, a professor of applied sciences and engineering at the university and the team’s leader, said:
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. This research demonstrates that we can easily manufacture the key components of a simple, entirely soft robot, which lays the foundation for more complex designs.
The field of soft robotics has its origin in bio-inspired robotics. As pointed out by the researchers, octopuses are one of the most fascinating organisms, capable of performing a variety of complex motions despite having no internal skeleton whatsoever. The octobot, as its name suggests, represents the team’s attempt to replicate octopus’ incredible features in the realm of robotics. Co-leader Jennifer A. Lewis explained:
Through our hybrid assembly approach, we were able to 3D print each of the functional components required within the soft robot body, including the fuel storage, power and actuation, in a rapid manner. The octobot is a simple embodiment designed to demonstrate our integrated design and additive fabrication strategy for embedding autonomous functionality.
Unlike similar automatons, the octobot is primarily pneumatic-based, meaning that it is powered entirely by compressed gas. The machine, according to the scientists, contains liquid fuel (basically, hydrogen peroxide), which turns into huge amounts of gas as a result of a chemical reaction. This gas in turn travels into the bot’s rubbery appendages, inflating them very much like balloons. Michael Wehner, the paper’s first author, added:
Fuel sources for soft robots have always relied on some type of rigid components. The wonderful thing about hydrogen peroxide is that a simple reaction between the chemical and a catalyst—in this case platinum—allows us to replace rigid power sources.
Using a specially-designed microfluidic logic circuit, the researchers were able to control the reaction converting hydrogen peroxide into pressurized gas. The appeal of this approach, the team believes, lies in its simplicity. The scientists are currently building an octobot that can not only crawl and swim, but can also interact intelligently with its surrounding. Ryan Truby, a member of the team, was reported saying:
The entire system is simple to fabricate, by combining three fabrication methods—soft lithography, molding and 3D printing—we can quickly manufacture these devices. This research is a proof of concept. We hope that our approach for creating autonomous soft robots inspires roboticists, material scientists and researchers focused on advanced manufacturing.
Source: Harvard Gazette