iRobot's Shape-Shifting Blob 'Bot Takes Its First Steps

iRobot shows off a morphing robot prototype that will be able to squeeze through wall cracks and under doors

2 min read
iRobot's Shape-Shifting Blob 'Bot Takes Its First Steps

This is by far one of the coolest and weirdest robot prototypes we at IEEE Spectrum have ever seen.

Meet iRobot's soft, shape-shifting robot blob. It rolls around and changes shape, and it will be able to squeeze through tiny cracks in a wall when the project is finished.

(Skip the first 1:50 minutes of the video above to see the blob in action.)

Researchers from iRobot and the University of Chicago discussed their palm-sized soft robot, known as a chemical robot, or chembot, at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems yesterday. It's "the first demonstration of a completely soft, mobile robot using jamming as an enabling technology," they write in a paper presented at the conference. 

The concept of "jamming skin enabled locomotion" is explained quite nicely in the video. The polymer used for the bot’s stretchy skin is off-the-shelf silicone two-part rubber.

By controlling the parts of the blob that "inflate," the researchers can make it roll.

The video shows the project as it was about a year ago. The current stage has a bit different design and is moving toward the ability to include sensors or even connect different blobs together, but those details are sketchy.

When asked about the usefulness of such a bot, iRobot researcher Annan Mozeika promptly answered, "to squeeze into small holes." And who wants to do that? DARPA, of course. End of questions.

Update: We corrected a typo above: silicon should be silicone—hah!

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
Horizontal
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less