Squishy, Soft Robots Crawl Their Way to the Cutting Edge of Science

A new breed of robots based on spineless creatures such as starfish and caterpillars could change the way humans interact with machines.

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Rob Shepherd

It looks like footage taken from a deep-sea submersible. A small creature fills and deflates sacs to crawl across the ground, not a bone present in its translucent body.

It’s not organic; in fact, it’s a robot designed by Dr. George Whitesides and his team at Harvard. In the future, soft robots like it will do everything from search disaster sites to inspect our internal organs to assist the elderly.

“The field is so young,” says Whitesides. “As we see it, we’re in the stage where almost everything we try works.”

While the idea of biomimetic robots—biologically inspired robots that mimic animals such as dogs and ostriches—isn’t new, soft robotics is in its infancy, really only taking off within the last five or six years.

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It’s a field that throws a lot of the conventions of robotics out the window. Biologists, computer scientists and chemists work side-by-side with mechanical engineers, trying to create brand-new models for unprecedented problems.

Instead of metal rods or sheets, most soft robots utilize materials similar to the elastic polymers used to make Dr. Whitesides’ “starfish,” which have the added advantage of being quickly and cheaply produced by another technology that’s also been on the rise: 3D printing.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpnLj-rzjIo%5D

“In experimentation, you have an idea, you try it, it fails, and then you look at the failure and you try to find something that works better,” says Whitesides. “You want to do that rapidly, to get your mistakes out of the way.”

The 3D printer in Whitesides’ lab allows for that trial-and-error process to be sped up. The result: A functional crawling and undulating robot aimed at helping first responders search through rubble for disaster victims.

He’s also working on a robot meant to replace hard clamps in operating rooms, gently moving organs aside so that surgeons can perform delicate procedures without worrying about damaging the body.

While small successes come quick in new fields like this, there are some serious challenges to conquer before we start seeing soft robots crawling around outside of university laboratories.

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