Harvard University scientists have revealed the first-ever robot that is autonomous, untethered and made from entirely of soft parts.
The small robot, dubbed 'octobot' and described in an upcoming paper in the journal Nature, could open the door for a new era of totally soft, autonomous drones-- revolutionizing how we think about and interact with machines.
Scientists have had trouble building totally soft robots. Electrical power and command systems – like batteries and circuit boards – are stiff and until now soft-bodied robots have been either connected to an off-board system or outfitted with hard parts.
Ref: An integrated design and fabrication strategy for entirely soft, autonomous robots. Nature (24 August 2016) | DOI: 10.1038/nature19100
Soft robots possess many attributes that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve with conventional robots composed of rigid materials. Yet, despite recent advances, soft robots must still be tethered to hard robotic control systems and power sources. New strategies for creating completely soft robots, including soft analogues of these crucial components, are needed to realize their full potential. Here we report the untethered operation of a robot composed solely of soft materials. The robot is controlled with microfluidic logic that autonomously regulates fluid flow and, hence, catalytic decomposition of an on-board monopropellant fuel supply. Gas generated from the fuel decomposition inflates fluidic networks downstream of the reaction sites, resulting in actuation. The body and microfluidic logic of the robot are fabricated using moulding and soft lithography, respectively, and the pneumatic actuator networks, on-board fuel reservoirs and catalytic reaction chambers needed for movement are patterned within the body via a multi-material, embedded 3D printing technique. The fluidic and elastomeric architectures required for function span several orders of magnitude from the microscale to the macroscale. Our integrated design and rapid fabrication approach enables the programmable assembly of multiple materials within this architecture, laying the foundation for completely soft, autonomous robots.