We're not entirely sure what happened with DARPA's Chembots program. We certainly didn't end up with one of these (not that we know of, anyway), but some cool stuff did happen along the way, like this and this and this and especially this. At the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems last month, we got a look at another type of soft robot, this one completely self-contained and capable of creepily rolling around on its own:
The robot is powered by a "pneumatic battery," which uses hydrogen peroxide and a catalyst to generate the gas pressure with which the robot sequentially inflates silicone bladders to propel itself. There's a brilliant system inside the battery to self-regulate the reaction so that the robot only ever uses as much of the H2O2 fuel as it needs. To control its motion, the bot relies on a system of electropermanent magnet valves. These valves are just like regular electromagnetic valves -- except they're permanent. You can switch them on and off using a little bit of current, but once the switch is made, they'll stay there without needing any power at all. It's very clever.
This research was sponsored by DARPA under the Chembots program and the Programmable Matter program, with help from Boeing. Combinations like that get me all excited, and although there may not be a future for this squishy little guy specifically, the underlying technology (specifically, those nifty little valves), could start popping up in all sorts of (probably less creepy) places.
"Soft Robot Actuators using Energy-Efcient Valves Controlled by Electropermanent Magnets," by Andrew D. Marchese, Cagdas D. Onal, and Daniela Rus from MIT, was presented at IROS 2011 in San Francisco last month.
Via [ Hizook ]