If robot limbo contests ever become popular, my money's riding on the team of Harvard scientists that just built a robot flexible enough to do the caterpillar dance under a door.

Led by chemist George M. Whitesides, the team's Gumby-like robot is the latest prototype in the emerging field of soft-bodied robots. In recent years, scientists have drawn inspiration from animals without hard skeletons, like squids and starfish, to develop bendable bots that can contort into hard-to-reach spaces, making them ideal to navigate post-disaster or battlefield terrain.

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"The unique ability for soft robots to deform allows them to go places that traditional rigid-body robots cannot," Matthew Walter, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an email to Yahoo News.

The new robot is 5 inches long and took two months to build. Its four legs can be controlled separately by pumping air into the limbs, either manually or with a computer, allowing the robot to crawl and slither.


The Harvard team showed the robot's flexibility by having it wriggle underneath a pane of glass that was three-quarters of an inch off the surface, equivalent to it squirming under a closed door. Of the 15 times the robot wormed under the glass pane, often it took less than a minute to do so.

Researchers were pleased that the robot did not break since it was constantly being inflated and deflated. However, researchers would like to improve the robot's speed.

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One drawback is the robot is tethered to an external power source. Scientists would likely need to find an internal power source before it could be deployed in real-life situations.

The project was funded by the Pentagon's research department, and was recently detailed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 [Via YahooNews]

Credit: Robert Shepard