- Aug 23, 2016 · The first autonomous, entirely soft robot . Powered by a chemical reaction controlled by microfluidics, 3D-printed ‘octobot’ has no electronics
- Scientists have developed a self-powered, octopus-inspired, entirely soft robot. The “octobot” has eight arms that are pneumatically driven by the release of oxygen.
The first autonomous, entirely soft robotPowered by a chemical reaction controlled by microfluidics, 3D-printed ‘octobot’ has no electronics
Soft robotics could help revolutionize how humans interact with machines. But researchers have struggled to build entirely compliant robots. Electric power and control systems — such as batteries and circuit boards — are rigid, and until now soft-bodied robots have been either tethered to an off-board system or rigged with hard components.
Robert Wood, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Jennifer A. Lewis, the Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), led the research. Lewis and Wood are also core faculty members of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.
“One longstanding vision for the field of soft robotics has been to create robots that are entirely soft, but the struggle has always been in replacing rigid components like batteries and electronic controls with analogous soft systems and then putting it all together,” said Wood. “This research demonstrates that we can easily manufacture the key components of a simple, entirely soft robot, which lays the foundation for more complex designs.”
The research is described in the journal Nature.
“Through our hybrid assembly approach, we were able to 3-D print each of the functional components required within the soft robot body, including the fuel storage, power, and actuation, in a rapid manner,” said Lewis. “The octobot is a simple embodiment designed to demonstrate our integrated design and additive fabrication strategy for embedding autonomous functionality.”
Octopuses have long been a source of inspiration in soft robotics. These curious creatures can perform incredible feats of strength and dexterity with no internal skeleton.
Harvard’s octobot is pneumatic-based, and so is powered by gas under pressure. A reaction inside the bot transforms a small amount of liquid fuel (hydrogen peroxide) into a large amount of gas, which flows into the octobot’s arms and inflates them like balloons.
To control the reaction, the team used a microfluidic logic circuit based on pioneering work by co-author and chemist George Whitesides, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor and a core faculty member of the Wyss. The circuit, a soft analog of a simple electronic oscillator, controls when hydrogen peroxide decomposes to gas in the octobot.
“The entire system is simple to fabricate. By combining three fabrication methods — soft lithography, molding, and 3-D printing — we can quickly manufacture these devices,” said Ryan Truby, a graduate student in the Lewis lab and co-first author of the paper.
The simplicity of the assembly process paves the way for designs of greater complexity. Next, the Harvard team hopes to design an octobot that can crawl, swim, and interact with its environment.
“This research is a proof of concept,” Truby said. “We hope that our approach for creating autonomous soft robots inspires roboticists, material scientists, and researchers focused on advanced manufacturing.”
The paper was co-authored by Daniel Fitzgerald of the Wyss Institute and Bobak Mosadegh of Cornell University. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation through the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at Harvard and by the Wyss Institute.
The octobot, described this week in the journal Nature, could pave the way toward more effective soft robots that could be used in search and rescue, exploration and to more safely interact with humans.
“The octobot is a minimal system designed to demonstrate our integrated design and fabrication strategy,” the study authors wrote, “which may serve as a foundation for a new generation of completely soft, autonomous robots.”
Traditionally, robots have been seen as stiff, angular entities, made of metal and other rigid materials (think C-3PO in Star Wars). But there’s a good historical reason for that, scientists say.
“Robots are typically used in manufacturing contexts that involve well-structured environments,” Barbara Mazzolai and Virgilio Mattoli of the Italian Institute of Technology’s Center for Micro-BioRobotics, who were not involved in the study, wrote in a commentary. “These situations allow them to move following predefined procedures, limiting interactions with human operators for safety reasons.”
But if you take these robots out of factories and put them in real world, things start to get dicey. Robots built for precise, repetitive movements in a controlled environment don’t do so well on rough terrain or changing conditions. And they aren’t especially safe around humans, because they’re made out of hard parts and can’t accurately adjust the force they wield on much-more-pliant people.
So researchers have been working on building soft (or at least, softer) robots for decades, and they’ve been getting better and better over time. They’ve taken inspiration from nature, looking to animals from jellyfish to cockroaches, which are often made primarily of soft (or very flexible) parts.
But building a completely soft robot has remained a challenge, because even if engineers can build a silicone body, they still had trouble building soft versions of certain essential parts, such as the control system and the power source.
“Creating a new class of fully soft, autonomous robots is a grand challenge, because it requires soft analogues of the control and power hardware currently used,” the study authors wrote.
But for this paper, researchers from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering managed to do just that. Octobot’s eight arms move thanks to a pneumatic system of inflatable compartments. The moving parts are connected to a network of channels that send liquid fuel (a hydrogen peroxide solution) to mix with a platinum-based catalyst in certain reaction chambers. As the fuel decomposes, it releases pressurized oxygen that inflates the actuators, allowing the octobot to move.
These movements are controlled by a series of logic gates — basically a fluid-filled version of a circuit board. The scientists managed to create this complex system using several techniques, including soft-lithography and multi-material embedded 3D printing.
Octobot is just the first step toward creating more advanced and capable robots, researchers said; its capabilities are pretty limited. But designing and building more complex robots will mean integrating several different materials and improving many different abilities, including movement, power and control and octobot shows that it can be done.
“Although soft robotics is still in its infancy, it holds great promise for several applications, such as servicing and inspecting machinery, search-and-rescue operations, and exploration,” Mazzolai and Mattoli wrote. “Soft robots might also open up new approaches to improving wellness and quality of life.”
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