"Gumby-like flexible robot crawls in tight spaces
The Harvard team, led by chemist George M. Whitesides, borrowed from squids, starfish and other animals without hard skeletons to fashion a small, four-legged rubber robot that calls to mind the clay animation character Gumby.
In recent years, scientists have been tinkering with squishy — sometimes odd-looking — robots designed to squeeze through hard-to-reach cracks after a disaster like an earthquake or navigate rough terrain in the battlefield.
"The unique ability for soft robots to deform allows them to go places that traditional rigid-body robots cannot," Matthew Walter, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an email.
A team from Tufts University earlier this year showed off a 4-inch caterpillar-shaped robot made of silicone rubber that can curl into a ball and propel itself forward.
The Harvard project, funded by the Pentagon's research arm, was described online Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The new robot, which took two months to construct, is 5 inches long. Its four legs can be separately controlled by pumping air into the limbs, either manually or via computer. This gives the robot a range of motions including crawling and slithering.
The researchers tested the robot's flexibility by having it squirm underneath a pane of glass just three-quarters of an inch from the surface.
Scientists maneuvered the robot through the tiny gap 15 times using a combination of movements. In most cases, it took less than a minute to get from side to side.
Researchers eventually want to improve the robot's speed, but were pleased that it did not break from constant inflation and deflation.
"It was tough enough to survive," said Harvard postdoctoral fellow Robert Shepherd, adding that the robot can traverse on a variety of surfaces including felt cloth, gravel, mud and even Jell-O..."
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