There's just something about those bulbous air muscles that soft robots use that creeps me out, but it's hard to deny that as the designs get more and more refined, the robots themselves are getting capable enough to actually, you know, start doing stuff. Take this soft robot from Harvard, for example: it not only walks, it knows several different gaits and can deflate to stuff itself through tiny little gaps.
Whoa, right? And there's nothing solid in there at all: You could probably smash this thing with a hammer a whole bunch of times and it would still keep coming for you. And that's part of the idea. The other part of the idea is that soft robots can adapt themselves to squeeze through gaps (as in the vid above) and otherwise get into places that robots with rigid structures might not be able to.
This particular robot (which comes from George M. Whitesides' lab at Harvard) distinguishes itself by being capable of several unique gait styles including walking, crawling, and slithering. Each of these gaits is controlled by pumping air at up to 10 psi into a succession of limbs, inflating and deflating elastomer compartments to provide temporary structure and rigidity. In addition to slipping through gaps, the robot can make it across things like felt cloth, gravel, mud, and Jell-O (don't ask).
As the Harvard researchers explain in a paper in PNAS, the robot was inspired by animals like squid, starfish, worms that "do not have hard internal skeletons," and the advantage of soft robotics is that "simple types of actuation produce complex motion."
Pretend to act shocked that the development of this robot has been funded by DARPA, and then start exercising your imagination as to what could be done with an indestructible, unstoppable, squishably soft little robot.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.