Slimy, Squishy, Slithery Robots

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Gone are the days when robots used to be huge monstrous machines aka Transformers style. Robots of the size of a fly astonished the world but still retained their machine-like appearance and behavior. The typical metallic or plastic robots failed to mimic the flexibility and agility of a living system. No matter what robots could do to ease human life, they still remained rigid heartless intelligent machines.

Not anymore! A team of scientists at Harvard University has successfully developed the first autonomous soft robot, “Octobot”. Though this robot isn’t capable of doing anything useful, it paves the way ahead for future flexi robotics.

Soft robotics has become a major research front for robotics in the past decade. Robots inspired by flexible creatures such as octopuses, caterpillars or fish have been areas of interest. Instead of requiring intensive machinery, circuitry and wiring, soft robots built of mostly flimsy or elastic material can just mould themselves to their surroundings. Although some of these machines use wires or springs to mimic muscles and tendons, as a group, soft robots have done away with the hard structural casing that defined previous generation robots. With nothing resembling bones or joints, these machines can stretch, twist, scrunch and squish in completely new ways. They can transform in shape or size, wrap around objects and even touch people more safely than ever before.

IEEE RAS Technical Committee on Soft Robotics established in October 2012 coordinates the international community for research in the field of soft robotics. In 2013, the International Journal on Soft Robotics was funded. It publishes quarterly results in this field. In October 2013, it started RoboSoft – A Coordination Action for Soft Robotics funded by the European Commission, with a goal to consolidate the international scientific community of scientists working in the field of soft robotics.

How the octobot works?

Octobot has been created using a combination of 3D printing, pneumatics, and chemical reactions. It contains no electronics or solid components at all. Each of the limbs contains a pneumatic channel connected to a central microfluidic logic circuit that controls the flow of fuel. It’s like a simple circuit board sans solid components.

Octobot doesn’t have a battery or a power cable. It is instead powered by a simple chemical reaction of platinum catalyzed decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. This reaction produces water and a large volume of oxygen gas that causes the limbs to move as it makes its way down pneumatic channels. The microfluidic logic circuit controls which limbs the gas flows into as and when it is produced.

Patents protecting this creature

Needless to say, scientists have filed patent applications to protect their innovative robot. The research has been funded by the United States government, which owns certain rights to this invention. Pending application US 20140109560 titled “Soft robotic actuators” filed in November 2011, claims a soft robotic device.

Source: Patent application US 20140109560

Source: Patent application US 20140109560

There are 81 INPDOC families constituting 161 patents and applications. Harvard University being the hub of major research in the field of soft robotics is evident from its patent portfolio.

Leading patent owners in Octobot technology. Source: iRunway Analysis based on data from Thomson Innovation

Leading patent owners in Octobot technology.
Source: iRunway analysis based on data from Thomson Innovation

The patent filing trend indicates a rise in activity in this space in recent years due to improvement in the field of microfluidic circuits, lithography and 3D bioprinting.

Patent filing trend shows an increasing interest in Octobot technology. Source: iRunway analysis based on patent data from Thomson Innovation

Patent filing trend shows an increasing interest in Octobot technology.
Source: iRunway analysis based on patent data from Thomson Innovation

Scientists George Whitesides from Harvard University (55 patents and applications) and Robert Shepherd from Cornell University (34 patents and applications) are leading inventors in this domain.

Turning heads in the market

Traditional industrial robotic hands require specific instructions to operate. Due to rigid dimensions and gripping capabilities, an industrial line of objects requires multiple robotic hands to fulfill its requirement. The need for flexible robotic hands that can conform to the size of the objects has caught the eye of the industry.  Although most soft robots are yet to see a life outside research labs, some are venturing out to feed industrial demand for adept robotic hands.

Soft Robotics Inc., a Cambridge-based start-up that spun out of Harvard’s research in 2013, has raised around US$4.5 million to develop a line of rubbery robotic claws. Soft Robotics released its first gripper for sale in June 2015, and is running pilot projects with six companies involved in packaging and food-handling.

Another company in Boston, Empire Robotics, has taken a radically different approach by marketing a robotic ‘hand’ that resembles a squishy stress ball. Named the ‘Versaball’, it can pick up objects in about one-tenth of a second and lift up to about 9 kg. Sand like particles inside the ball flow freely at first, allowing it to deform as it presses firmly into an object. Then, a valve sucks air out of the ball so that the grains inside are forced tightly against each other, causing the ball to harden its grip. This innovative ball is based on research by Heinrich Jaeger at the University of Chicago in Illinois, and Hod Lipson at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Funded by the US military, scientist Conor Walsh at Harvard University has spent years developing and honing a soft ‘exosuit’ for soldiers — a comfier analogue to earlier ‘Iron Man’-type exoskeletons, meant to help fighters to carry heavy loads over long distances while easing the motion of the soldier in the flexible suit.

With such technology shaping up for the near future, octobots could prove helpful for people with physical disabilities, making for an extended arm to assist in everyday activities.

(Featured image source:

Aditi Das
Aditi Das

Aditi Das is a compulsive sci-fi dreamer who conjures up aliens from vehicles stuck in a traffic snarl. When she isn’t driving teams, inspiring them to shred technologies to pieces and unearth their DNA, she’s busy dishing up Bengali food and blogging.

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