Can I get real for a second? I love soft robots. These squishy mechanoids have all the cool factor of being, you know, robots, plus a whole host of squish-related superpowers. They're less likely to hurt humans (no hard edges) so they have great potential for performing autonomous surgery. They're also less likely to break, because the materials they're made out of won't shatter. And finally, their softness makes them perfect for search-and-rescue missions, because they could be designed to squeeze in and out of tight spaces in messy terrain.
I also love octopods. This is a demonstrable fact.
So you can just imagine my delight at the news that the world's first truly soft robot — totally squishy and totally autonomous — pays tribute to the noble octopus.
Readers, meet the octobot:
All previous soft-robot prototypes have had to rely on hard battery packs (or wires tethering them to a power source). But octobot, described in a study published Wednesday in Nature, is able to take its squishy show on the road. In theory, anyway — for now, it can't do more than twitch its little legs around. But it's a start.
The bot is powered by a simple chemical reaction. A sort of circuit inside the octobot's "brain" powers little valves and switches to control the flow of hydrogen peroxide. When the liquid hits a catalyst — in this case, tiny bits of platinum — it turns into a gas, which powers the robot's tentacles pneumatically.
"The octopus itself does not move this way; it is not powered this way," Harvard graduate student Ryan Truby, one of the authors on the study, told the BBC. But cephalopods, with all their squishy limbs, incredible strength and dexterity, have inspired the field in an abstract way from the start. "We're not necessarily taking inspiration from the octopus itself, but we thought that for ... our first embodiment of an entirely soft robot, it needed to have the form of an octopus."
Octobot herself isn't going to wriggle into disaster areas and save the day. But by bringing together all the best soft fabrication techniques available — and showing that untethered movement, however simplistic, is possible — the team has no doubt inspired other research groups to ditch the battery packs and shoot for total squishiness.