Soft 'Octobot' Powered by Liquids, Not Electronics

This flexible robot moves without any electronic parts, wires or circuits.

The field of so-called "soft robotics" has exploded in recent years, with labs across the country racing to figure out how best to make robots less rigid and clunky and more soft and flexible like living organisms.

Now researchers at Harvard University have designed something unique, a soft robot that moves without any electronic parts, wires or circuits. The new eight-legged "Octobot" -- and others designed like it -- could more easily interact with people and with each other no matter the task.

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Until now, soft-bodied robots have been tethered to a power supply or fitted with hard components. But this new "Octobot" (it looks like a jiggling transparent octopus) is powered by a chemical reaction and controlled with a soft logic board.

"Rather than moving electricity, we are moving liquid fuel," Wehner said.

Here's how it works. A reaction inside the device transforms a small amount of liquid fuel, in this case hydrogen peroxide, into a larger amount of gas, which flows into the octobot's arms and inflates them like a balloon.

The team used a microfluidic logic circuit to control when hydrogen peroxide decomposes to gas in the octobot, explained Michael Wehner, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

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"The main goal was to do something was completely soft," Wehner said. "You have to think about how you will do that. We did a lot of brainstorming. We ended up with big stack of good ideas but no way to implement them."

Wehrner's co-author and a graduate student in the department, Ryan Truby, came up with a plan on how to manufacture the octobot. The shape of the robot was molded in a form.

They also developed a method of 3-D printing to embed the channels that carry the liquid fuel as well as the actuators -- that parts that move the limbs.

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The octobot can move its limbs, but it can't move across the floor. Nor can it be programmed to follow commands or detect information about its environment. The pair believe that will be the next step.

Soft robots, Wehner said, "are more like people. For translation and movement, they are more acceptable for human areas. Also in dealing with handling sensitive instruments, harvesting, picking or even handling babies, you want soft manipulation."

Soft robots more easily absorb the energy when they bump into something, rather than getting damaged, the pair noted.

Robert Shepherd, associated professor of robotics at Cornell University, said the new device, is inspirational.

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"It brings robot design closer to nature's design," he said in an e-mail. "Because the robots can have truly 3-D mechanical design and power source integration, much more sophisticated musculature can be created."

Turning this octobot into a device that can interact with humans will need a new path of development, Shepherd said.

"It doesn't appear that computer code is the answer to controlling this robot; it also isn't for biology," he said. "The answer will likely depend on chemistry and mechanical design for adaptive control. Those methods are all possible using the type of 3-D printing techniques demonstrated here."