Harvard team develops soft robot that stands up and walks on its own

Harvard University scientists have built a soft robot they say can function without a communications and power tether.

Harvard University scientists have built a soft robot they say can function without a communications and power tether. The four-legged robot can literally stand up and walk away from the people who built it.

The development team called the machine, which is about a foot-and-a-half long and can carry more than 7 pounds, a huge step forward for robotics.

It has the potential to complete life-saving tasks like squeezing into the crevices of collapsed buildings to search for victims, send their location and images to rescuers and provide them with water and medicines.

"I'm very excited about this," said Michael Tolley, a research associate at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a member of the project team. "I think it's really a milestone towards these types of robots becoming more useful in the real world. On one hand, it seems like a relatively simple thing to just cut the cord but a lot of things that have to come together to make it happen."

The team of researchers from Harvard and its Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering restructured a standard soft robot design so it could carry the equipment it needs to function -- micro-compressors, control systems, and batteries -- on its back.

Harvard's soft robot is made of Kevlar at the bottom to give it strength, while the top of it is made of a silicone rubber composite. The stiff rubber material is impregnated with hollow glass microspheres to make it lighter, researchers said.

Harvard said the research team tested the machine in snow, submerged it in water, walked it through flames, and even ran it over with a car. It was unscathed after each test.

"Earlier versions of soft robots were all tethered, which works fine in some applications, but what we wanted to do was challenge people's concept of what a robot has to look like," said Tolley. "We think the reason people have settled on using metal and rigid materials for robots is because they're easier to model and control. This work is very inspired by nature, and we wanted to demonstrate that soft materials can also be the basis for robots."

Robots traditionally been made of metal and strung with wires and cables, but many top researchers now focus on building soft robots.

Scientists at New York University last November said they had built a flying robot designed to mimic the movements of a soft, swimming jellyfish.

Earlier this year, researchers at MIT said they had built a soft, autonomous robotic fish that can change direction in a fraction of a second. The research team said that because of the softness, or squishiness, of the machine, it can continuously change into an "infinite range" of configurations.

Tolley noted that the work his team has been doing at Harvard is focused on creating a robot that can work autonomously and freely, while retaining that pliable and flexible design.

"It's inherently soft so it can adapt to an unstructured environment," Tolley told Computerworld. "It could squeeze through small holes like an octopus could. It doesn't quite have that capability yet but that's what we're moving towards. Robots are generally made of metal and bolts but when we've started to explore different materials that aren't so rigid."

The team's next step is to outfit the robot with sensors and enable it to walk faster.

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