For years, scientists have been trying to make a soft robot—one that doesn't rely on hard parts that can break or snap. Their inspiration? Living beings. After all, animals are self-propelled and many can easily squish themselves into tight spaces. Now one team of researchers thinks the best animal for the job can be found in the sea, reports Charles Q. Quoi for LiveScience.
Called the "Octobot," the newly-developed soft robot uses an octopus as its inspiration. It looks and moves somewhat like a robot, but the real wonder is inside: Octobot is the first robot to be built entirely from soft components. In a paper published in the journal Nature, researchers from Harvard University discuss how they used 3D printing, microfluidic fuel and a bit of natural ingenuity to create the creature-like machine.
Using what researchers call "microfluidic logic," which means the machine regulates its own internal fluid flow and uses an ingenious fluid fuel to get around. Octobot is filled with liquid hydrogen peroxide that, when it makes contact with a platinum catalyst, gives off gas in the form of oxygen. The oxygen then travels through the robot's circuits, which resemble tiny pipes or veins; pressure builds and subsides, causing motion.
This hydraulic motion allows the robot to wave its eight arms—no wires, no batteries, no controllers. As a bonus, since the gas has to go somewhere, the robot is outfitted with tiny escape hatches through which it can fart—er, expel gas.
As Quoi notes, there's a downside: Like its real-life counterpart, Octobot doesn’t have an on-off switch, and only runs for four to eight minutes. That could change, however, as researchers refine their design and figure out ways to get more out of the chemical reactions that drive the motion.
On/off issues aside, Octobot helps fuel new hopes for soft robotics, an industry that's been growing in recent years. The concept is simple enough—your average robot is filled with wires, springs and hard components that make it jerky, unnatural and susceptible to wear and tear. Softer robots could be much more versatile, squeezing into tight places for search-and-rescue operations or gripping other objects regardless of shape.
But that poses a huge challenge: In order to achieve the truly soft robots of the future, engineers must first figure out how to completely eliminate all hard parts, like batteries. Other researchers have created the beginnings of "synthetic muscles" that use newly-developed polymers to propel machines forward with relatively large amounts of force.
But the team behind Octobot revels in the simplicity of a liquid fuel source. "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,” Michael Wehner, a researcher who co-authored the paper, says in a press release. Sometimes simple is better—even when that means your new robot is a farting cephalopod.