When you think of the word 'robot' a metallic and rigid image might come to mind, but things are changing, and robots are getting smaller as well as softer.
Harvard researchers have developed a new method for producing small-scale squishy robots and demonstrated it to the public by creating a flexible robotic peacock spider, which is driven by a microfluidics system.
The millimetre-sized colourful cyborg is made from a single elastic material with body shaping, motion and colour features. Inside its body is a system of thin, hollow tubes through which special liquids are pumped, to actuate its limbs, change in colour or even set more permanent features.
"The smallest soft robotic systems still tend to be very simple, with usually only one degree of freedom, which means that they can only actuate one particular change in shape or type of movement," says Sheila Russo, co-author of the study. "By developing a new hybrid technology that merges three different fabrication techniques, we created a soft robotic spider made only of silicone rubber with 18 degrees of freedom, encompassing changes in structure, motion, and colour, and with tiny features in the micrometre range."
Despite the creepy-crawly device's 12 layers of elastic silicone, which reminds you of something out of The Invasion and, unlike all the other flashy robots out there, this peacock spider robot appears in a two-dimensional form, until it starts to move. To reach its final shape, some of the robot's microfluidic channels are pressurised. When this is hit with UV light from the outside, the resin hardens and bends the softer layers into the desired shape.
The project is part of MORPH (Microfluidic Origami for Reconfigurable Pneumatic/Hydraulic) and, with all the microfluidic channels, users can inject liquids into the bot to induce movement.
"The MORPH approach could open up the field of soft robotics to researchers who are more focused on medical applications where the smaller sizes and flexibility of these robots could enable an entirely new approach to endoscopy and microsurgery," Wyss Institute founding director and SEAS, professor Donald Ingber, said.
The team demonstrated the soft spider in the video below.