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Nooks and crannies no obstacle for soft-bodied robot

posted 21 Dec 2011, 06:46 by Mpelembe   [ updated 21 Dec 2011, 06:47 ]
Harvard scientists have built a soft-bodied robot flexible enough to wiggle into tight spaces no other robot can reach. The researchers say their robot has potential application as a tool for surgeons and for search and rescue operations. Sharon Reich reports.
REUTERS/THE WHITESIDES RESEARCH GROUP, HARVARD UNIVERSITY/JACOB FREAKE HANDOUT - It's designed to find its way into the narrowest crevice or tightest corner.

Created by a team led by professor George Whitesides at Harvard University, this flexible, bendable robot is a simple machine that can adapt to its environment with a minimum of technological assistance.


"A good way of thinking about what flexible robots could do is thinking about the inspiration. Our inspiration is a squid or octopus. They're really amazing animals. They can camouflage themselves in remarkable ways and if you think about the motion a tentacle can make and the way in which they can squeeze themselves in small holes and things like this. These are just things a big robot can't do."

The flexible robot is made from a two part silicone rubber resin, the same kind that is used in breast implants.

The resin is mixed and baked in a 3-D printed mold to create the robot's body. The body comes to life when it's attached to a set of tubes, through which air is pumped by a computer program.

While the tether does limit its mobility, post-doctoral fellow Adam Stokes says the movable control panel makes the robot operable in almost any terrain, even mud and wet sand.


"It works by inflating and deflating chambers in this body much like balloons. what we've done is we've programmed in a range of sequences to make the robot crawl or undulate."

And it's those varying sequences that enable the flexible robot to reach spaces inaccessible to its bulkier, metal counterparts.


"Our notion is that you could use it where you would use fingers. To spread tissue in surgery, to manipulate things like small animals, circumstances in which you really were trying to handle something that was delicate. So an application might be as a tool that would be an assistant to a surgeon. Another application is in search and rescue. Imagine an earthquake and the ceiling has half fallen down and there are piles of rubble and you want to see what's in there. One of these objects could go in there and climb around because we believe they'll be good in unstable environment or crawl through, which a hard robot could not do, spare human beings the risk and by the way if the roof falls in they should be fairly inexpensive and no one cares."

The team say there are still a few kinks to work out, but hope their soft-bodied creation can find a niche in the real world in the near future.

Sharon Reich, Reuters