Introducing The First 100 Percent Soft Autonomous Robot That Can Work Without Batteries

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A team of researchers working in Harvard University recently unveiled an autonomous robot that is completely soft and untethered. The team we are talking about here is the one that specializes in microfluidics, 3D printing, and mechanical engineering. Named as the Octobot, this small robot has potential to set path for autonomous, completely soft machines in coming times. Soft robotics can completely upturn the manner in which humans work with machines. Researchers all over the world have fought hard to create completely compliant robots. Till now, the soft bodied robots were either tethered with the off-board systems or rigged with some other hard components.

Figure 1: Octobot is powered by a chemical reaction and controlled with a soft logic board.

This specific researcher was led by Jennifer A. Lewis, the Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard Robert Wood, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and ; John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).  Wood and Lewis are also renowned faculty members of the Harvard University affiliated Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering  college.

Wood says that, “One long-standing 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. 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.”

And as per Lewis, “Through our hybrid assembly approach, we were able to 3D print each of the functional components required within the soft robot body, including the fuel storage, power and actuation, in a rapid manner, The octobot is a simple embodiment designed to demonstrate our integrated design and additive fabrication strategy for embedding autonomous functionality.”

Soft robotics has been taking inspiration from octopuses from a long long time. These soft but swift creatures are capable of performing unmatched feats of dexterity and strength without support of any bones or cartilage.  The one developed by Harvard researchers is a pneumatic based octobot that has been powered with pressurized gas. A small reaction within this robot turns some liquid fuel into large volume of gas that then flows into arms of octobot inflating those like a balloon. Michael Wehner, another postdoctoral fellow in Wood lab explains, “Fuel sources for soft robots have always relied on some type of rigid components. The wonderful thing about hydrogen peroxide is that a simple reaction between the chemical and a catalyst—in this case platinum—allows us to replace rigid power sources.”

The team employed a microfluidic logic circuit for controlling the gas reaction inside the octobot. The circuit was a joint creation from Ann A. Flowers University Professor and core faculty member of the Wyss and Woodford L, the co-author and chemist George Whitesides.