Clunky, square and rigid are three words that spring to mind when I think “robot.” Thanks to a team of scientists over at Harvard University, however, the robot’s been revolutionized, receiving a makeover that’s made it limber enough to wiggle and worm itself through tight spaces.
Led by chemist George M. Whitesides, the team took cues from nature, studying squids, starfish and other animals without hard skeletons to create a small, four-legged rubber robot reminiscent of the green clay humanoid character Gumby. Over the past few years, scientists have been tinkering with more pliable material, trying to design robots that could squeeze through hard-to-reach cracks after a natural disaster, or could navigate rough terrain in a battlefield.
Funded by the Pentagon’s research arm, the new robot is five inches long and has four legs that can be separately controlled by pumping air into its limbs, either manually or via computer, according to the Associated Press. The pumping process gives the robot a range of motions, like crawling and slithering, allowing it to squirm underneath a pane of glass just three-quarters of an inch from the surface in less than a minute. The team said they eventually want to improve the robot’s speed, but have been pleased that it hasn’t broken from constant inflation and deflation.
“It was tough enough to survive,” said Harvard postdoctoral fellow Robert Shepherd, who added that the robot could travel over a variety of surfaces, including felt cloth, gravel, mud and even Jell-O.
The one drawback is that the robot is currently tethered to an external power source, so scientists need to find a way to integrate the source before it can be used in the real world.
Over the past year, scientists from all over Greater Boston’s higher ed community have been testing various prototypes for soft-bodied robots. In April, researchers from Tufts University debuted a four-inch caterpillar-shaped robot made entirely of silicone rubber that could curl itself into a ball and propel itself forward. And last month, a team of researchers from Harvard, Northeastern and MIT designed a robotic plush, stuffed dragon to appeal to preschool children.
As scientists continue to build on their previous work, robots are becoming increasingly humanized, being given biological motions and the ability to decipher feeling. Could those old sci-fi movies come true? Could robots take over the world? (Alright, I’ll stop being dramatic now.)
To see the robot in action, take a look at the video below —