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Freaky Boneless Robot Walks on Soft Legs

This soft, inflatable, and totally creepy robot from Harvard can get up and walk on four squishy legs

2 min read
Harvard soft robot
Image: George M. Whitesides/Harvard

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.

[ PNAS ] via [ Physorg ] and [ BBC ]

The Conversation (0)

How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page
Blue

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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