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)

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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