Cornell and Harvard researchers have created a flexible, rubber-like robot for use in search and rescue missions that can withstand the most extreme elements. (Reuters)

Soft robots are the coolest. Made without the stiff mechanical components of a traditional robot, they're much better at bending and squeezing into tight spaces. With no hard edges, they're also less likely to hurt the animals, people and objects they interact with. Because of this, engineers have suggested that soft robots could be used to crawl into collapsed buildings in search-and-rescue missions, or even be used as a safer alternative to current robotic surgical tools.

But soft robotics is still in its early stages, and most designs have to stay tethered to an air source. These air pumps allow the robot to move pneumatically, by shifting air into different parts of its anatomy.

This new design, described in the recently established Soft Robotics journal, gets all of the equipment right onto the bot's back. Its creators put it to the test in extreme heat and cold, showing that their robot -- in addition to looking an awful lot like that old cartoon character Gumby -- is a solid step toward autonomous, untethered search-and-rescue robot.

Without a cumbersome air pump attached to the robot, it could theoretically wiggle its way into any environment. It still has a lot of components that are less than squishy -- processors, pumps, and a power supply -- but researchers are already brainstorming ways to replace these with flexible pieces.

You can see more footage of the new robot enjoying its freedom on Harvard's Web site.