World’s first autonomous, entirely soft robot

A team of Harvard University researchers with expertise in 3D printing, mechanical engineering, and microfluidics has demonstrated the first autonomous, untethered, entirely soft robot. The small, 3D-printed robot, nicknamed the octobot, could pave the way for a new generation of completely soft, autonomous machines.

“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 Robert Wood, professor of engineering and applied sciences. “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.”

Harvard’s octobot is pneumatic-based and is powered by gas under pressure.A reaction inside the bot transforms a small amount of liquid fuel (hydrogen peroxide) into a large amount of gas, which flows into the octobot’s arms and inflates them like a balloon.

Michael Wehner, a postdoctoral fellow in prof Wood’s lab, said: “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.”

To control the reaction, the team used a microfluidic logic circuit, a soft analogue of a simple electronic oscillator, to control when the hydrogen peroxide decomposes to gas in the octobot.

The simplicity of the assembly process paves the way for more complex designs. Next, the Harvard team hopes to design an octobot that can crawl, swim and interact with its environment.

Author
Tom Austin-Morgan

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