Soft robots could do the hard work on Mars

A pair of designers at NASA are doing work on soft robots that could explore the hard to reach places
nasa soft robots "Who's ready to explore a Martian tunnel? Is it you, Gummy? Yes, you're a good actuator!" (Screenshot of video courtesy of NASA)

At a makerspace lab at NASA's Langley Research Center, a pair of builders named Chuck Sullivan and Jack Fitzpatrick are working on robots that, well, don't look like robots.

These are soft robots (the longer form name is "soft robotic actuator" — an "actuator" is a machine that moves). Instead of the hard, firm metal gears and pieces that we are used to when we think of robots, these machines are made of highly flexible materials like silicone. The idea? Soft robots would be better able to squeeze into tight spaces or crawl across uneven ground that traditional robots could not.

An inflated sense of self

Here's how it works. First, molds for the pieces of the robot are 3D printed. Then liquid silicon is poured into the molds to set. When the silicon sets, these pieces have chambers inside them called air bladders. Fill them up with air, and the piece will expand — release some of the air, and it will contract back down.

This allows the robot's limbs to move a lot like, say, a squid's limbs do. In fact, these actuators are inspired by animals. This type of tech is called biomimetic — that means that it borrows ideas from nature. Though this technology isn't new, the idea of using it on another planet is.

A soft future

But these actuators aren't ready for action just yet. The prototypes are being tested and improved as we speak. And no matter how good they get, these 'machines' will have limits. There are things that a rover like Opportunity can do that they cannot (like travel hundreds of miles on the Martian surface). But as an addition to the robot crew that may one day visit our neighbour, it has a lot of promise.

Watch this video to see the bots in all their squishy glory.

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