Reported byPeter Reuell, PhysOrg, and Harvard Magazine, 15 Dec. 2011.
What do you think of when you hear the word “robot”? If you’re like most folks, you probably imagine something like Gort from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” — a lumbering metal machine designed to resemble a human.
When the “body” of the robot is inflated, it arches; when the “legs” are inflated, the robot stands up. Sequential pressurization and depressurization of the legs allows the robot to walk to a barrier (a glass plate). Deflation of the body decreases the height of the robot, and a different sequence of actuation of the legs gives it a kind of undulatory motion, and allows it to wiggle under the barrier. Once on the other side, re-inflation of the body allows it to resume its walk. Image courtesy of George Whitesides
Whitesides, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, and his research team have developed an array of “soft” robots based on natural forms, including squid and starfish. Whitesides envisions using the pneumatically powered robots to aid disaster recovery efforts by squeezing into the rubble left by an earthquake to locate survivors, or as a way to free up a surgeon’s hands in the operating room. The work is described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this month.
“If you look around, most robots are things that either look like humans, or like parts of humans,” Whitesides said. “The robots that work on automobile assembly lines are just the upper half of a human being that’s bolted to the ground.
“There are all kinds of animals, however, that do things in very different ways, and those creatures have not been looked at carefully because we have gotten fixed on a particular point of view,” Whitesides continued. “The key to this research is that we asked the question, ‘Why can’t we do something that’s squidlike?’”
Inspired by natural forms, Whitesides’ team went to work, eventually building starfish- and squidlike robots capable of surprisingly delicate operations such as picking up a raw egg without breaking the shell.
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