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Robots show a softer side

Image courtesy of Lori K Sanders, Ryan Truby, and Michael Wehner

Advances in materials science and 3D printing have launched a soft robot research boom, potentially easing the integration of robots into our lives. "We've been promised robots among us but the big shortfall has been how they interact with humans," says Harvard researcher Michael Wehner, who built the first entirely soft autonomous robot – called octobot. Three recent examples:

  1. Last week, researchers demonstrated a 3D printed robot that has both soft and hard parts in its legs so it can climb over sand and uneven ground.
  2. Another team recently created an artificial Venus fly trap that is pliable and snaps.
  3. Scientists built a self-powered squishy robotic fish that can tread water and operate for three hours without recharging.

Why it's needed: If robots are going to live and work with humans, they'll need to be safe and perform better around people (more soft on the outside, less hard edges, and more flexible and adaptable). Other applications — like rescuing people after earthquakes or remediation after a toxic chemical spill – require agile robots with the ability to squeeze into tight spaces or cheap, biodegradable ones. And overall, robots need to be able to better deal with the unpredictable world they may occupy, a challenge soft robots might meet.