Robots may most readily be associated with images like Forbidden Planet‘s Robbie the Robot and The Terminator, but George M Whitesides says robots don’t need to be the cold, unyielding machines they have been traditionally. Whitesides is the Woodford L and Ann A Flowers University Professor at Harvard University and he has been doing work in “soft robots”. This new breed of robot draws its inspiration from creatures like squid and starfish and may have important real-world applications in areas from disaster relief to the medical field.
Whiteside and his team recognized that many robots are based on the human form (think assembly plant mechanical “arms”), but realized that there are “all kinds of animals […] that do things in very different ways”. These animals had been overlooked as potential robotic muses because we’ve had a kind of tunnel vision regarding robot form and function. The team first looked to squid and starfish for inspiration, developing “gripper” robots that could perform such delicate tasks as picking up an egg without damaging the shell.
They weren’t satisfied with this somewhat novelty application of their ideas, though. The researchers have gone on to create robots ranging form a “four-legged platform to one that resembles the animated character Gumby.” The Gumby bot looks a bit silly – especially when the air cylinders that move it by inflating and deflating its parts get going – but Whitehead says these kinds of designs have some fantastic possible uses. They are soft and light enough to be used by surgeons to hold instruments or secure delicate tissue during procedures, and their flexibility could allow them entry to disaster areas inaccessible to humans and other robots:
“Using multiple air cylinders that open and close in sequence, researchers are able to make such designs walk or crawl through spaces as small as three quarters of an inch.
Such flexibility would be critical in search and rescue operations, one of the major areas where Whitesides sees the robots being used. A variety of sensors, from cameras to chemical detectors, could be mounted on a robot and used to pinpoint the locations of survivors, survey the damage from a disaster, or take chemical and radiation readings, all without endangering the lives of rescue workers.”
If all that isn’t cool enough, the robots are actually made using 3D printers. So, basically, you’ve got super light, flexible robots that look like Gumby and could help us better rescue people from disasters and perform surgery….and those robots are created by replicators. The Future is so cool.