Aug 27, 2016 I Brett Tingley

Meet “Octobot:” The World’s First Squishy Autonomous Robot

The aquatic animal-based robotics stories just keep on coming. Earlier this year, researchers designed a robotic living “biohybrid” stingray that reacts to light, and a few months later a new half-robot half-sea slug abomination was unveiled. Now, a team of scientists at Harvard University have unleashed the newest creepy sea creature robot onto the world: the “Octobot.”

The tiny Octobot (SD card for scale).

The team has published their results in Nature and are hailing Octobot as a revolution in soft robotics:

New strategies for creating completely soft robots, including soft analogues of these crucial components, are needed to realize their full potential. Here we report the untethered operation of a robot composed solely of soft materials. [...] Our integrated design and rapid fabrication approach enables the programmable assembly of multiple materials within this architecture, laying the foundation for completely soft, autonomous robots.

Whereas previous soft robots featured a soft body atop a rigid skeleton, Octobot is completely soft and squishy throughout and was created through advanced 3D printing techniques. The robot’s fuel storage, power supply, and arm actuators were printed directly into the silicone body. The Octobot’s soft body allows it to squish or squeeze through tight spaces much like the real animal after which it is was designed.

The most fascinating design element of the Octobot is its circuitry. Whereas conventional robots are powered by electrical systems, the squishy Octobot is powered by an advanced pneumatic system that uses a specific hydrogen peroxide reaction to create the gas that flows through its “veins” and creates movement. The robot’s ‘brain’ is a series of fluid chambers with valves and switches to direct the gasses and fluids that flow inside the soft octopus-like body. Harvard engineer Robert Wood claims this system is essentially a gas-powered circuit:

It’s an analogy of what would be an electrical circuit normally. Instead of passing electrons around, we're passing liquids and gases.

Octobot's unique circuitry uses hydrogen peroxide-based fuel to create the gas that powers its legs.

Ryan Truby, a Harvard graduate student and co-lead author of the paper, stated in a Harvard press release that the Octobot is just the beginning for a future of soft, squishy robots:

This research is a proof of concept. We hope that our approach for creating autonomous soft robots inspires roboticists, material scientists, and researchers focused on advanced manufacturing.

Hmm… soft, squishy 3D-printed robots...It’s been recently predicted that robotic sex workers will soon populate brothels worldwide. These Harvard engineers better get busy.

But not that kind of busy.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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