Meet Octobot - the First Fully Autonomous, Entirely Soft Robot

Meet Octobot, the First Fully Autonomous, Entirely Soft Robot

IMAGE: TechXplore

A team of researchers at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University have successfully created the first fully autonomous, entirely soft robot. 

Taking the form of a 7cm pneumatic octopus, the tiny robot relies on no cables or batteries, but instead is powered by a chemical reaction and controlled with a soft logic board. 

Soft robotics are touted as a game changer for the interactions between humans and machines, but creating an entirely soft robot has thus far eluded engineers and scientists: traditional electronics and control systems - batteries and circuit boards, for instance - are rigid, and until now soft-bodied robots have needed to be tethered to external power sources or incorporate hard components, which somewhat defeats the point. 

The research was led by Robert Wood (Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences) and Jennifer A. Lewis (Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologicall Inspired Engineering) at the Harvard John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). 

"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 anaologous soft systems and then putting it all together," said Wood. "This research demonstrates that we can easily manufacture the key components of a simple, entirely soft robot, which lays the foundations for more complex designs."

"Through our hybrid assembly approach," said Lewis, "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."

VIDEO: Harvard University YOUTUBE

The Octobot is based on pneumatic theory: it is powered by gas under pressure. A reaction inside the bot converts a small amount of liquid fuel (hydrogen peroxide) into a large amount of gas, which flows into the Octobot's arms, inflating them. The chemical reaction itself is controlled by a microfluidic logic circuit - a soft analog of a simple electronic oscillator - which controls how much fuel is allowed to decompose at any one time. 

"Fuel sources for soft robots have always relied on some type of rigid components," said Michael Wehner, a post-doc fellow and co-first author of the paper. "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 entire system was simple to fabricate, by combining three fabrication methods - soft lithography, molding and 3D printing - we can quickly manufacture these devices," said Ryan Truby, co-first author.

"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."

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