Science News

Meet octobot: the octopus-shaped robot

Fri, 26th Aug 2016

Lucka Bibic

OctobotThis week, the first autonomous, octopus-shaped and entirely soft robot, nicknamed “octobot” has been invented.

Until now, researchers have struggled to design an entirely soft-embodied robot; they have been tethered to a rigid external power source or equipped with hard components, like   batteries and circuit boards. This poses serious limitations when it comes to interacting with us, softer and squishier humans.

Soft robots, inspired by flexible creatures such as octopuses, offer a solution. These robots have ditched the skeletons that defined previous robot generations and their pliable material helps them to mould themselves to the surroundings. However, developing a self-sufficient soft robot has still been a challenge.

Harvard University’s engineers have now come up with an impressive, marine-inspired solution: octobot. 

Using chemistry, they managed to replace the rigid power sources of previous robots with a built-in pressure source. This takes a form of a small amount of liquid fuel (hydrogen peroxide) which – when exposed to certain conditions -  breaks down and releases energy very quickly in the form of hot gases (oxygen). These gases flow into the octobot’s arms and inflate them like a balloon – thus causing the robot to move a limb.

However, it’s not only ‘boneless’ like a jellyfish but is also autonomous - it can regulate the release of fuel and which limb to move when.  It does so by controlling the chemical reaction using a microfluid logic circuit, a soft analog of a electronic oscillator. This controls when hydrogen peroxide decomposes to gas in the octobot. The job of this circuit is then to distribute the gas to the right chambers so the robot inflates in a particular motion. That brings the robot the autonomy to decide when to flex its little robot limbs. 

At the moment the autonomous octobot’s working time is around 10 minutes, but more time-efficient robots are currently being developed. However, developing soft and flexible robots pave the way towards smooth and friendly human-robot interaction which aims to outfit them for more delicate jobs.

“One of the biggest barriers to overcome has been the safety issue. When you look at the car manufacturing facilities, they have all of these robots doing some wonderful tasks, but there’s a bright yellow line painted on the floor, saying ‘Robot area - keep out’. So the soft robots can open the door to more friendly interaction,” said Dr Michael Wehner, who co-authored the study.

Robots inspired by flexible creatures such as octopuses are built of floppy materials with purposeful movements - with nothing resembling bones or joints, these machines can stretch, twist and squish in completely new ways. They can transform in shape or size, wrap around objects and even touch people more safely than ever before.

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