A recent post in Dhub pointed to new directions in robotics. Flying drones constructed an architectural model out of foam blocks for the ‘vertical village’ that will be located in the rural area of Meuse in France. The brief video shows flying drones used for construction rather than destruction or surveillance.
On another extraordinary level are folded origami robots, or soft robots, that can perform varied tasks simply by controlling airflow and pressure. The robots are molded from paper and silicone rubber and can bend, twist, grip and even lift more than 100 times their weight.
These pneumatic prototypes are not as advanced as other robots, with no internal moving parts and electronics, they are quite simple forms. Almost akin to early life forms in the natural world like amoeba, they extend and move in a naturalistic and anthropomorphic way.
One of the creators, chemist Xin Chen of Boston University, says “If you want to go through a winding tube or rubble or some other tough environment that’s difficult to reach, you need to be flexible.”
Mechanical robots built of metal and other hard materials are normally powered by electricity and have complex internal circuitry and parts. They are heavy, and inflexible however are extremely good at carrying heavy equipment, can diffuse bombs and we can use them on assembly lines to build cars.
But there is a need for a more flexible type of robot and scientists and developers have looked to nature for other models for the basis of their designs. They have turned their attention to insects, birds, snakes fish and even quadrupeds such as dogs to gain inspiration for a new generation of robot.
The Whitesides team, funded by the Pentagon’s research unit, have developed the air-powered robot that constricts and expands. The robot can squeeze its way through a mouse hole and small cracks – a useful skill to have in earthquake-relief efforts or in the battle field. It can crawl, squirm and inch it’s way through difficult crevices adjusting and changing it’s dimensions. These robots are relatively cheap and easy to produce, are more resistant than their hard-bodied counterparts, are predominately made from elastomeric polymers and simple designs that require few body parts.
The video shows the soft bodied robot wiggling its way underneath a pane of glass.
Newer developments have incorporated the use of fabric, mesh and silicone-moulded shapes to strengthen the robot and get it to perform different functions. In the future, the researchers hope to add wiring and electronics to bring even more functions to their forms.
What can they be used for?
“In principle, you could scale down to microscopic or nanoscopic scales,” Chen said. “You can’t do the same with hard materials.”