Octobot and the Advent of Soft Robotics
Since the dawn of robotics, rigidness of the body and a continuous source of power supply has always been seen as obstacle when it came to creation of sustainable robotics projects. That may be changing now. Octobot is the first autonomous and completely soft ‘bio-inspired’ robot created by a team of Harvard University researchers by combining three fabrication techniques of soft lithography, 3D printing, and molding.
Bio-inspired robotics is a part of bio-inspired design, where real-world engineering systems are developed by learning the concepts from nature. Here, the Octobot, as the name suggests, is inspired from “octopus” and it contains no rigid parts. This creature has for long been a source of inspiration for soft robotics for its ability to executing works of strength and sleight without any internal skeleton. Other than that soft robotics has been quite the need of the hour in allowing movement in confined places (like inside the human body) and in building robots that can change their physical properties as per their surrounding or the object of contact.
The entirely soft robot is untethered and autonomous in terms of fuel source. This ensured that the robots relied on some type of rigid components preventing them from realizing their full potential. Even the soft-bodied robots were tethered to some external rigid system for power supply or rigged with such components.
The Octobot is powered by a chemical reaction between hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and the catalyst platinum (Pt), the flow of the fuel is then controlled by the microfluidic logic circuit which autonomously directs the fuel to the limbs of the Octobot.
This lays the foundation for more complex design and will revolutionize the way humans and machines interact.
“This research is a proof of concept, we hope that our approach for creating autonomous soft robots inspires roboticists, material scientists and researchers focused on advanced manufacturing..” – Ryan Truby, a graduate student in the Lewis lab at Harvard and co-first author of the paper.
With the advent of such autonomous robots with higher mechanical intelligence the possibilities are endless. It would drive the convergence of usually unrelated technologies in fields such as mechanical, electrical, bioengineering, material science, and medicine if successfully implemented. The use of such robots is particularly immense in the field of medicine. Imagine prosthetic limbs and organs containing such robotic components and tissue engineered materials helping in better recovery and mobility. Also, such smaller self-powered soft robots can be put inside the human body for diagnosis, drug therapy, and surgery purposes, causing less trauma and easy traversal through complex organ structures.
Apart from that this new generation of soft robots can help in mechanical tasks in a more swift and detailed way through soft muscle-like actuation technology by which they can move, deform their body, and change body stiffness as required by their surroundings. Extraction of important minerals or data from the innermost layers of the Earth is an example of just how highly useful such autonomous soft robots can be.
With cheaper manufacturing cost and no requirement of batteries the next generation soft robots will be well equipped for real-world situations and no part of this planet or even the human body for that matter will remain unreachable.