Robot that can crawl in tight spaces

It's the latest prototype in the growing field of soft-bodied robots. Researchers are increasingly drawing inspiration from nature to create machines that are more bendable and versatile than those made of metal.

The Harvard team, led by chemist George M. Whitesides, borrowed from squids, starfish and other animals without hard skeletons to fashion a small, four-legged rubber robot that calls to mind the clay animation character Gumby.

In recent years, scientists have been tinkering with squishy — sometimes odd-looking — robots designed to squeeze through hard-to-reach cracks after a disaster like an earthquake or navigate rough terrain in the battlefield.

“The unique ability for soft robots to deform allows them to go places that traditional rigid-body robots cannot,” Matthew Walter, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an email.

A team from Tufts University earlier this year showed off a 4-inch caterpillar-shaped robot made of silicone rubber that can curl into a ball and propel itself forward.

The Harvard project was described online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.The new robot, which took two months to construct, is 5 inches long. Its four legs can be separately controlled by pumping air into the limbs, either manually or via computer. This gives the robot a range of motions, including crawling and slithering. The researchers tested the robot's flexibility by having it squirm underneath a pane of glass just three-quarters of an inch from the surface.

Researchers eventually want to improve the robot’s speed, but were pleased that it did not break from constant inflation and deflation.

“It was tough enough to survive,” said Harvard postdoctoral fellow Robert Shepherd. There were drawbacks. The robot is tethered to an external power source and scientists need to find a way to integrate the source before it can be deployed in the real world.

Robotics researcher Carmel Majidi, who heads the Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, said the latest robot is innovative even as it builds on previous work. “It’s a simple concept, but they're getting lifelike biological motions,” he said.

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