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The soft, phase-changing material. Photo courtesy of the researchers. (via MIT)

Researchers Make Phase-Changing Material Fit for Transforming Robots

Wax and foam are on the cutting edge

smithsonian.com

You can buy wax and foam for less than $30 at a craft store, but someday robots made from the stuff might save your life. Researchers at MIT have dreamed up a cheap material that could allow for low-cost shapeshifting, self-healing robots.

Popular Science explains how simple wax and foam could be transformed into mechanical creatures: 

It’s cheap polyurethane foam soaked in a wax bath – things commonly found in a craft store. The researchers ran a wire along the edges of the 3D-printed structure and induced a current to apply heat. Through the flick of a switch, the structure gets hot and turns soft like jelly. Turning the current off cools it down and lets the material get rigid again.

Anette Hosoi, the mechanical engineer who developed the material, explains to MIT News that not just any squishy material would do: “You can’t just create a bowl of Jell-O, because if the Jell-O has to manipulate an object it would simply deform," she said. “If you’re trying to squeeze under a door, for example, you should opt for a soft state, but if you want to pick up a hammer or open a window, you need at least part of the machine to be rigid."

A shapeshifting robot could certainly open the door to some interesting uses. For example, during surgery, a robot could slither into a body without hurting the patient, and then perform a task. Search-and-rescue applications are of particular interest to some of the folks funding the project. Here's MIT's statement: 

Working with robotics company Boston Dynamics, based in Waltham, Mass., the researchers began developing the material as part of the Chemical Robots program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency was interested in “squishy” robots capable of squeezing through tight spaces and then expanding again to move around a given area, Hosoi says — much as octopuses do.

Perhaps someday we will see squishy little robots competing in the war games alongside its Boston Dynamics cousin, the mechanical mule known as LS3. 

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About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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