It's thrown on fire, it's run over by a car and yet this robot, built by a team of Harvard engineers, keeps on going.
An untethered soft robot is the latest and possibly one of the greatest, in a steady stream of recent robotic developments. Unnamed as of yet and bearing quite a resemblance to Gumby, the soft robot is renowned for its ability to withstand varying degrees of sadistic torture.
In an attempt to go against the belief that robots must be humanoid and metallic, the research teams from Harvard's School for Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering formed the quadruped robot from soft materials that can withstand extreme temperatures. Modeled after squishy animals found in nature such as squid and starfish, the soft bot crawls on all fours and is made from a hard silicon rubber interspersed with hollow glass spheres to lighten the load.
"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," said Michael Tolley, lead author of the research published in the journal Soft Robotics.
The feat of developing the robot wasn't an easy one - challenges were presented left and right. First, the untethered robot had to be able to encompass all the necessary parts: microcompressors, controllers and batteries. Then, the bot needed to be able to withstand high pressures, especially for the purposes Tolley's team has in mind. With sturdy, pliable materials, the team met its goal. The robot can withstand air pressure of 16 psi, double the pressure previous soft robots could handle.
To prove that the hard work paid off, the researchers subjected the soft robot to tests. They pushed the squishy robot into New England snow storms, submerged the bot in water, forced it to pass through flames and drove over it with a car. Perhaps the torture wasn't the kindest way to welcome the first large, untethered, soft robot into the world, but it went far in proving how tough the robot is and what it can offer.
The possibilities for this robot are endless. Tolley's team aims to create these robots to employ in search and rescue missions. Since nature holds back for no one, the robot's ability to withstand weather extremes will be more than handy. Furthermore, the soft nature of the robot makes it less dangerous to operate than rigid, metal robots, so it's safer to rely on in emergencies.
The rescue mission purpose is one of the reasons the team went for an untethered robot. Tethered robots have the advantage of being able to transfer fluids and solids, but their usefulness doesn't extend far outside a laboratory environment. An untethered robot has free range of motion and can jump into emergency situations easily.
The researchers don't stop here. Harvard is also developing a soft, indestructible exoskeleton for DARPA that researchers are comparing to skinny jeans. This Soft Exosuit gives the wearer extra strength and can be used by soldiers in the field.
Whether they are squishy, metallic and/or wearable, the robots of the future are clearly here.