Robots are flat-out awesome. No arguments there, right? And are they futuristic? You bet! And so cuddly, too! Hmm. Okay, maybe not so much...
But that's only because you haven't met the world's first autonomous soft robot (autonomous means that it can function on its own without being controlled remotely). The Octobot! This robot has been made by a team at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is the first time that a self-functioning robot has been made by "replacing rigid components like batteries and electronic controls with analogous soft systems."
In other words, it doesn't use motors, wheels, gears, shafts, or any of the hard devices that all robots use for support and to guide their limbs, legs, or claws. There's no metal, no hard plastics. So how does it move?
Inspired by nature
Designing this super soft bot after an octopus was about more than making it cute. Turns out that the remarkable animal carried a lot of the answers that these scientists were looking for in the first place. That's because octopus are unique in that they have no solid parts in their bodies at all. That's right, no bones whatsoever. Instead, an octopus relies on muscles, nerves, and body fluids to guide its movements.
It's a gas!
The scientists behind the Octobot work at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, which is a way of saying, We make stuff that copies how nature works. So, you'd think that the next step would be easy. Here's the octopus, here's how it works, now go copy it. It's what you folks do!
But while building the body was fairly simple (they used 3D printers to create the rubbery silicone body), after that things became a lot more difficult. How do you make something move without any solid parts?
These scientists finally settled on a robot that would be pneumatic-based. Sounds complicated, but all it means is that it pumps gas through tubes to power its movement. Kind of like you blowing into a balloon. Tiny chemical reactions inside the limbs are created by touching platinum to hydrogen peroxide, which is the robot's fuel. Watch this video to see how a small amount of hydrogen peroxide liquid can turn into a lot of gas.
Amazing! So in order to move its limbs, the Octobot's "brain" triggers these chemical reactions. The newly-created gas pumps through a few limbs, making them move. The Octobot can even tell if too much gas is being released into some limbs, meaning that it will then focus on its other limbs. In the end, the robot is able to perform a series of pre-programmed movements without any guidance or assistance from a human operator.
Of course, the Octobot isn't about to help do your homework or build a fort with you. It basically does its squirmy dance and can swim a bit...and that's about it. For now. The next step for these jellybot pioneers is to make an octopus robot that can move and swim better, as well as interact with things around it. Whatever they do, they had better keep an eye on their creation. If they make one too smart, it might try to do this!