Soft robots aren’t new—DARPA, for example, developed a small one capable of changing color to camouflage itself (see video below). As impressive as that is, the biggest drawback is the tether, which is pretty much a power cord. Now, researchers from Harvard have figured out a way to, as they put it, “cut the cord” and develop a soft robot that can walk without a tether.
A tethered robot is easier to build, and conforms to our notion of what robots should look like—namely, metallic and rigid, and thus easier to maneuver. The researchers, however, wanted to borrow from nature by updating the traditional soft robot design, creating a quadruped droid made out of a composite silicone rubber that carries its mechanical brain on its back. Their soft bot is relatively large—just over 1.5 feet long, which is considerably bigger than its predecessors. It can also carry 7.5 pounds on its back. It’s not Big Dog, but it can still do some pretty impressive stuff, namely, traversing snow, water, fire, and withstanding being run over by a car.
The silicone composite is rubber stuffed with tiny empty glass spheres. This makes the robot both lighter and hardier, as does layering the robot’s underside with Kevlar. So while it might seem surprising that the team subjected their robot to so many harsh conditions, it’s even more surprising (and awesome) that this robot passed all the tests, making it a prime candidate for work in all kinds of awful situations.
The team will follow up their design’s success by implementing further innovations, such as adding sensors and increasing the robot’s speed. But the fact that the robot moves without a tether is a major breakthrough in itself, as it can be brought and used just about anywhere it is needed. The robot’s soft design also makes it safer than robots you’d find in manufacturing or disaster-relief scenarios. Safer, perhaps, but not less creepy. At least it doesn’t have eight legs.