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The Octobot Is A Major Robotics Breakthrough (It's Also Pretty Cute)

Harvard's soft 3D-printed robot is fueled by chemical reactions.

Octomom: Frightening. Octobot, the first autonomous soft robot: Adorable. 3D printed by Harvard researchers from a malleable material and powered by chemical reactions, the robot moves without the use of electronics.

One of the biggest robotic design challenges today is liberating machines from the rigidity of electronic systems, especially in the case of wearables, which need to move and flex right along with the human body. To design a soft robot, engineers at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering looked to the anatomical structure of octopi, since the aquatic creatures are capable of remarkable dexterity and strength despite having no skeleton. (Octopi are a longstanding inspiration for roboticists.)

The Octobot was fabricated using a combination of 3D printing, soft lithography, and molding. Though there aren't any electronic circuits inside of the 'bot, it's designed with the concept of circuitry in mind: its movements are fueled by a reaction that turns hydrogen peroxide into gas, which flows through hollow channels inside. The channels route the gas through the robot, inflating sections like a balloon—causing it to move.

"One longstanding vision for the field of soft robotics has been to create robots that are entirely soft, but the struggle has always been in replacing rigid components like batteries and electronic controls with analogous soft systems and then putting it all together," professor Robert Wood told the Harvard Gazette. "This research demonstrates that we can easily manufacture the key components of a simple, entirely soft robot, which lays the foundation for more complex designs."

The researchers hope that this relatively basic robot—which basically just moves its legs up and down—could be developed into a more sophisticated design, like an Octobot that swims and crawls. Harvard's Octobot isn't likely to creep into product design immediately, but the concept opens the door for more scientific exploration into how 3D-printed soft materials and chemical reactions might fuel the next breakthrough.

[All Images: via Lori Sanders, Ryan Truby, Michael Wehner, Robert Wood, and Jennifer Lewis]

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