Octobot points to future of robotics?

Meet the octobot, an entirely soft, autonomous robot. A pneumatic network (pink) is embedded within the 3D-printed octobot's body and hyperelastic actuator arms.
Meet the octobot, an entirely soft, autonomous robot. A pneumatic network (pink) is embedded within the 3D-printed octobot's body and hyperelastic actuator arms.PHOTO: HARVARD UNIVERSITY

It is small, squishy and cute. Say hello to octobot.

Harvard University researchers say they have created the first autonomous, entirely soft robot, inspired by the strength and dexterity of the octopus.

The 3D-printed octobot could pave the way for a new generation of completely soft robots, its creators believe.

Soft robotics could revolutionise how humans interact with machines.

One advantage they have over their hard cousins is that they can bump into things without damaging themselves or others. They can also squeeze into hard-to-reach spots during surgery or search and rescue missions, for instance.

But researchers have struggled to build entirely compliant robots, said the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in a statement.

Electric power and control systems such as batteries and circuit boards are rigid and, until now, soft-bodied robots have been either tethered to an off-board system or rigged with hard components.

Professors Robert Wood and Jennifer Lewis of the school led the effort, and the work was published in the prestigious journal Nature.

"One longstanding vision for the field of soft robotics has been to create robots that are entirely soft, but the struggle has always been in replacing rigid components like batteries and electronic controls with analogous soft systems and then putting it all together," explained Dr Wood.

"This research demonstrates that we can easily manufacture the key components of a simple, entirely soft robot, which lays the foundation for more complex designs."

The researchers said they were able to 3D-print each of the functional components required within the soft robot body, including the fuel storage and power.

The octobot is pneumatic-based - it is powered by gas under pressure. A reaction transforms a small amount of liquid fuel into a large amount of gas, which flows into the octobot's arms and inflates them like a balloon, causing them to twitch.

The simplicity of the assembly process paves the way for more complex designs, the scientists said. The team hopes next to design an octobot that can crawl, swim and interact with its environment.

Chang Ai-Lien

• Watch octobot in action at http://str.sg/4cCw

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2016, with the headline 'Octobot points to future of robotics?'. Print Edition | Subscribe