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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 ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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