November 29th, 2011
04:21 PM ET

New rubbery robots no threat to R2-D2

Not long ago, a pair of Harvard scientists hit on an "aha" moment in the most unexpected place: while waiting in line at a post office.

Robert Shepherd and Filip Ilievski were trying to help the rest of their research team create a new generation of bendable rubbery robots called soft robots.

They already had a design that allowed their bendy robot to undulate, or move in a wavy motion. But they were looking for a design that offered more movement.

"We knew that nature already has a lot of quadrupeds walking around, and we already had this undulator design," Shepherd said. "We thought, oh, we could just map one onto the other and we would have an undulator and a quadrupedal crawler."

Unprepared for their moment of inspiration at the post office, Shepherd and Ilievski were forced to jot down their ideas on an envelope.

They unveiled their creation in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their team, headed by George Whitesides, has dubbed the invention the multigait soft robot.

Soft robotics, experts say, is the cutting edge of robot design and holds unimaginable promise for several reasons.

First, let's point out the obvious: These are not your grandparents' - or even your parents' - robots.

In other words, this ain't R2-D2.

The Harvard team's soft robot is a white, X-shaped device made of a rubbery polymer called elastomer.

The robot's motion is controlled through many tiny chambers in its body that cause it to move when filled with compressed air. The air is fed through tubes attached to the robot. "They've used a clever system of chambers and shapes, and when you apply pressure, you get the robot to move in predictable ways," says Barry Trimmer, who's developing soft robotics at Tufts University.

It can adjust itself enough to crawl through a gap 2 centimeters (0.79 inches) wide and insert itself into places where metallic or hard plastic robots could never go. It weighs only 1.5 ounces (42.5 grams).

The technology has mind-bending possibilities.

Imagine a tiny twisty robot crawling into your body so your doctor can perform a procedure without surgery.

Larger soft robots could be developed to assist elderly people with common tasks like opening doors, drawing a bath, or helping them stand or walk.

Or, perhaps such a robot could help search-and-rescue squads find victims trapped under rubble from a disastrous earthquake.

Soft robots could be useful in other ways too, like exploring other planets and bomb disposal.

Aside from research and development, this kind of technology is astoundingly inexpensive.

The materials used to create the Harvard robot cost about $5, Shepherd says. After the design was perfected, the prototype was manufactured in about two hours.

Special materials could be developed for different robots, depending on their tasks. Medical robots could be made of proteins, such as silk. Other robots could be built with materials that are biodegradable for convenient and safe disposal.

"It's becoming a major focus of robot research," Trimmer says. "There's increasing investment in Europe in building and developing soft material robots. The U.S. needs to think a lot more about this and put more resources into it."

The Harvard project was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's research think tank.

But scientists still have some big hurdles ahead. One of the most challenging, Trimmer says, is designing a soft robot that is independent and autonomous.

The Harvard robot can't move without compressed air, which is fed through tubes attached to its body. "Usually, if you want to build a device to do something useful, you don't want it to be tethered," Trimmer says. "If you want it to travel somewhere, you don't want it to be trailing wires or tubes."

Scientists also hope to develop soft robots that are much larger and much smaller.

But don't expect soft robots to eventually replace the hard kind. As robots start to become part of everyday life, experts say, there will still will be a need for R2-D2s and C-3POs.

"Science is still trying to make really good hard robots - including humanoid robots," Trimmer says. "There's a huge legacy of hard robots out there, and they also can do a lot of things humans can't."

Post by:
Filed under: Discoveries • On Earth
soundoff (101 Responses)
  1. BAReFOOt

    Except that it’s NOT a robot. If this is a robot, then my mouse and my printer are “robots”.
    As long as it’s not autonomous, all it is, is a tool. Similar to a limb at best.
    It’s nice and all, but this here is no more that a multi-chamber air-mattress in a X shape, with computer-controlled pumps attached.

    January 1, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  2. Georgeiphq

    Hi everybody I recently desired to introduce personally. When you have questions don't hesitate to inquire. I'm sorry with regard to my personal poor language

    December 8, 2011 at 1:53 am |
  3. Phil

    How about adding 3-4 tiny, flexible toes/fingers to each foot/hand? The "fingernail' side of these short, flexible fingers could be made of a slippery, low-friction material, while the "fingerprint" side of the fingers would be made of a grippy material. Think about it. As the robot undulated forward, the toes on the rear "feet" would obtain traction from the underside surface of their "toes", while the front "fingers"would bend underneath the front feet, and slide along on their slippery "fingernail" surface. As the undulation wave progressed, the front fingers would pop out from underneath the hands, gain traction on their grippy undersides, and pull the rear feet (whose toes were now bent under on their slippery side) merrily along.

    December 5, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  4. What The

    Since when is a balloon a robot? The balsa wood airplane powered by a rubber band I had when I was a kid, was that a robotic plane? Robot is not the right word for these...toys.

    November 30, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Les

      I agree. A "robot" acts autonomously. This looks like a remote controlled toy. I would like to know more about the control system. Just because you can male somethiong move by expading air chambers, doesn't mean that you have created a "robot".

      November 30, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  5. celtichunter7

    That video is me after child support got a hold of my assets and family jewels.

    November 30, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  6. SamSkwirl

    OMG Thank you... you made my Wed of slacking at work worth it.

    November 30, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Luz

      I am highly agsanit using guns in robots. However, this is a shell around a human. The robot is to give the human extra strength, hence the reason they are using a kid for the demo. I am ok with it only because it still requires a human to make the judgment call. It does scare me in the direction we are heading.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  7. outawork

    This is how it starts. Then is a few years skynet is taking over the world.

    November 30, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Big Worm

      doin' the worm!

      November 30, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  8. Tim

    Nice idea but needs a lot more work to be good for anything more than a neat gizmo

    November 30, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  9. Soicanleavecomments OnBlogs

    I prefer hard to soft.

    November 30, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  10. Quiescent

    I had a dream where I heard movement and saw a large one of these things sneaking up behind me. New Hollywood actor?

    November 30, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  11. PallyEwain

    why do any of you see this as advanced? the prosthetic limbs they make are more advance than this. this is just a shaped balloon

    November 30, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • airborne

      give it a chance idiot, or get an education!!!!!!

      November 30, 2011 at 10:54 am |
      • C. Smith

        This is the foundational development of a new kind of technology. Previously, all our machines were based on mechanical work, of pushing and pulling rigid pieces in every joint. This new technology replaces that foundational concept with the inflation, twisting, or pulling of flexible pieces through a remote source. To see some other applications (including a few that are already promising for manufacturing of delicate objects), look at a German group called Festo: http://www.festo.com/cms/en_corp/11371.htm

        This technology is still in its infancy, so it's no surprise that this is primitive work, but the promise of such technology working alongside hard robots is huge.

        November 30, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  12. Charles

    Can they make on in the shape of a gerbil?

    November 30, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  13. Jon

    Why the snide comparisons to R2-D2? The title doesn't have anything to do with the content of this article.

    November 30, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  14. athens-ga

    More and more Havard scientists need go to post office in pairs and stand in line. We need more of these inventions pronto!

    November 30, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • athens-ga

      Harvard (spelling, oops!)

      November 30, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • cb

      nope, you spelled it right. it's the same place where you pahk yowah cah.

      November 30, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Chris

      Oh no, he forgot a letter, you got him good this time. You guys are retarded, everyone forgets a letter now and then when typing. Get over yourself.

      November 30, 2011 at 10:25 am |
      • Shawn

        actually, he was poking fun at the phonetics used in the boston area.

        November 30, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  15. SmarterthanU

    Sperm in 4D up close.

    November 30, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  16. Nick

    Pneumatic drummer monkey toys are 10 times the robot this piece of rubber is, and it has been around for 50 years. What people will do for a research grant...

    November 30, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  17. Aflackguy

    After being rejected for the worm role on the Aflak commercial, worm guy found a new career in wasting govt funds......

    November 30, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • Chris

      I suppose you think we shouldn't fund things like this. What would you have our tax dollars go to? I think this is a better use of our tax dollars then buying 2 500,000 dollar campaign busses like Obama did. Would you rather us not perform any reasearch and fall behind technologically and have China surpass us? Technology is everthing and we need to stay on top of it with research like this.

      November 30, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  18. Chris Honry

    What is it lacking, like all other gadgets? See all those tubes attached to it? Of course, a power source! I tell ya, if you can invent a strong, lightweight power source you'd be a billionaire easily.

    November 30, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  19. saroj

    great idea! i will only trust this gummy robot for future the day when it can grab a pencil and write some beautiful chinese, by itself. just saying.

    November 30, 2011 at 1:45 am |
  20. patick

    I think a friend of mine did this in 8th grade science class back in the 80's using straws. No BS!

    November 30, 2011 at 1:29 am |
  21. Virectin

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    November 30, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • Figures...

      The only nice comment about this invention I've seen so far was spam about a d|ck pill.

      November 30, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  22. Timetraveler

    Sorry guys. The porn industry is already way ahead of you.

    November 30, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  23. Brad

    well it looks less like a robot and more like a rubber design that fills with air and the design simple collapses in a way that moves it forward. I mean how much funding did this bring in? wow

    November 30, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  24. BigRed

    I can't help but think of what the sex industry will do with this.

    November 30, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  25. dave

    in comes killbot... smashes window... saves the day

    November 29, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
  26. Zobra

    The design for the locomotion seems short sighted, nature has so much more to offer in real examples, you just have to look. Outside air is a handicap when you could use materials which don't need outside power or using air retain the volume in the body using opposite constrictions. Rather than pump in and out, move the volume with valving.

    November 29, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
    • ty

      You make a robot then.

      November 29, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
      • Zobra

        "TY"=Silly Wabbit. Maybe I will, open your mind and look around. This has been done before, which is why I think this is a weak attempt. Good luck to you.

        November 30, 2011 at 8:04 am |
  27. lol

    it looks kinda like an elephant in the beginning :)

    November 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • Pokey

      I think it looks like Gumby's ghost with a severely prolapsed rectum.

      November 29, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
  28. Dead robot?

    I mean I would rather have been taken over by them as overlords than in my body.

    November 29, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  29. Dead robot?

    Won't the robot be attacked by white blood cells because it's seen as an intruder to the body or certain organs?

    November 29, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • Majestic_Lizard

      No, the robot would not be microscopic. Based on your reasoning all doctors who perform open heart surgery would be killed by white blood cells.

      November 29, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
      • Dead robot?

        i mean in the blood system plus the doctors skin cells keep bacteria and other one celled organisms out plus their gloves.

        November 29, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
      • Dead robot?

        Also white blood cells will eat at parts of it because it is small enough to get around the body.

        November 29, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  30. most

    trying hard not to laugh but failing

    November 29, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  31. t

    sad we are hearing about things that came out 6 years ago

    November 29, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  32. krayc

    Too late. Chinese just stole the technology. They'll be making toys within days and selling them to us.

    November 29, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  33. Brad

    I, for one, welcome our new slithery robot over lords

    November 29, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • Epic comeback for robots

      Brad and gurgle are right the i robots failed now they're sending in the indestructible slithery overlords.

      November 29, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • Hobgoblinkas

      They came in with one simple dream...to kill all humans.

      November 30, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  34. NorCalMojo

    It should slither.

    This tech looks like it's best application would be in combination with traditional robotics. I doubt mobility will be it's strong suit. It would be great for gripping delicate objects.

    November 29, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • good idea...

      Read: Diamond Heist

      November 30, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  35. Fiona

    Tiny, twisty, rubbery robots climbing into my body to do surgical procedures? (Shudder)

    November 29, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  36. Tom

    Its along way from being useful. But its potential is great.

    November 29, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  37. cj

    Seems that this basic technology could be turned into a prosthetic hand with much better gripping quality than what is out. The battery and electronics could go in the forearm (assuming the prosthetic is elbow down). Help give some injured people much better quality of life.

    November 29, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  38. Jason

    Why did they put the R2-D2 part and the grandma i dont get it.

    November 29, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Carla

      First, let's point out the obvious: These are not your grandparents' – or even your parents' – robots.

      In other words, this ain't R2-D2

      November 29, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  39. Wheres3PO?

    R2-D2 may be old but I'm guessing R2 would at least have had the sense to just go around the little glass wall.

    November 29, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  40. Jason

    better safe than sorry

    November 29, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  41. Raynell

    Damn, This is what Harvard kids sit around and think up?

    November 29, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • Jason

      Idk maybe.

      November 29, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • sharoom

      No one has made a working prototype before. Proof of concept I suppose.

      November 29, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  42. Juniis Gallio

    Interesting, but getting it off the cables is going to be a fun challenge.

    November 29, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  43. Jason S

    Need to invent a micro compressor ti fit inside to eliminate the cables. The cables limit the applications

    November 29, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Juniis Gallio

      Micro-compressors (and the power sources for them) will comprise more weight, and will limit flexibility. Yes, it's going to need to be done of they ever want this as something more than a concept, but there are minuses as well as plusses to such an approach.

      November 29, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • Chris

      A. This is powered by air, not by electricity. The only need for a microprocessor would be to control which part of the robot inflates and at what time. I believe the will come up with a way to insert an initial bubble of air into the robot and figure a way to manipulate that air and move to different sections of the robot.

      November 30, 2011 at 10:35 am |
      • BBBB

        MicroCOMPRESSOR not MicroPROCESSOR

        November 30, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  44. f

    Imagine what the penile implant/ED industry can do with this thing !!

    November 29, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • todd

      lol Now your talking.

      November 29, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  45. Mike

    LIMBO!!!

    November 29, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  46. gurgle

    lol is this article for real? Medical uses? Why are they trying to act like the real uses arent military? A soft robot would be nearly indestructible and can be dropped into any area like a bomb to be deployed. Even if bullets were able to penetrate it you would only disable one or 2 pockets which would hardly disable it. Its the perfect military robot.

    oh ya, and uh it was funded by DARPA. Not a single mention of it being used for the military and it was FUNDED by the freaking military. This is the worst attempt at spin ever. DARPA has zero interest in helping the elderly open doors.

    November 29, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • The Ding Dong Goes...

      LEARN 2 READ!

      It can adjust itself enough to crawl through a gap 2 centimeters (0.79 inches) wide and insert itself into places where metallic or hard plastic robots could never go. It weighs only 1.5 ounces (42.5 grams).

      They aren't exactly talking about killer robots here. But hey, believe what you want I guess.... They make a tiny little plastic bendable robot, you see a perfected killing machine being sold to the public under the guise of helping the elderly without surgery.

      November 29, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
      • durr

        Uh its a new technology and has to start simple. This device does absolutely none of the things you said, so whats your point? You think its easier to turn this into a robot that goes inside people and does complicated surgeries than a military robot made to just walk around?

        Assuming it ever advances beyond this stage then DARPA will obviously want to use it for military uses. CNN tried to do the same bogus humanitarian view on the DARPA sub orbital rocket a few months ago saying it would be used to deliver medical supplies... they were wrong, its only purpose was to deliver warheads as we learned when it crashed.

        November 29, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • sharoom

      Why do you think it's initial intended application is the ONLY application it will be used for? Sometimes the most useful applications were never the intention. This is true for all sorts of research from any source, be it from academia, government funded programs such as NASA and military, private sector, or even just screwing around. I stress the last one because those are the ideas that I feel most often come from outside the box, the spontaneous "Oh hey what if we tried this..." moments.

      November 29, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • CJA

      Darpa funds fundamental research that has broad application. Apple's "Siri" came out of DARPA as did the entire Internet. I could go on. But most most of this kind of stuff has many uses and you will not see any of them for 20+ years

      November 29, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  47. Tracy

    Marry me!

    November 29, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  48. kenhbradshaw

    How is this different that an oddly shaped ballon?

    November 29, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Jason

      not much but i dont think balloons have those same chamber and able to move on th floor in it doesnt really float so.......idk

      November 29, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  49. Jasson

    Nice technology by the way how the robot kept falling was funny.

    November 29, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  50. Blue 19

    Ah the secret revealed of how Gumby moved all those many years ago.

    November 29, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  51. Rod C. Venger

    For another 2 cents they could have attached small pieces of velcro, or even small squares of flannel, and given those limbs the ability to actually grip the surface of what it's crawling on. It would have wasted a a lot less motion and made for a more effective demonstration. The obvious next step is to scrap the entire idea and go to materials that will contract and relax with a small electric charge. That charge, coupled with a tiny chip, would allow the robot to run about untethered. Add some visual interpretation capability and it could become autonomous. Put a Swiffer Picker Upper on the bottom and you have a robot that will scrub your floor.

    November 29, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • Jason

      Smart idea

      November 29, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Qiox

      Dumb idea. That grip becomes resistance to motion and what you get is an enhanced ability to stay in one place.

      November 29, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • Erik

      The problem is the robot of that size doesn't produce much force, and the added friction of what you think is a genius solution is merely a disadvantage to the robot in mobility, efficiency, and style.

      November 29, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  52. 8====D

    Stupid, any body can see its a fake.

    November 29, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • lhpogo

      Ok genius, explain to me how you make a fake without actually making a working soft robot?

      November 29, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Jason

      lets see u do it!

      November 29, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
      • yea

        i wanna see one of these things maybe you could make a face outa some kinda Styrofoam, Probly explode so military could use it as a prototype.

        November 29, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  53. Blibbidy

    Let's be honest. The real application is that I can finally have that robot girlfriend that doesn't want to talk about her day...

    November 29, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Marty S

      True. Just as the web evolved to provide faster porn access, so will robots to replace women.

      November 29, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
      • Jason

        lol haha

        November 29, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • Fiona

      Yikes, I didn't even think of that application! You're probably right.

      November 29, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  54. ...

    Interesting design... Would be a lot more efficient if you made an additional compressed air tunnel that would make the robot roll instead of crawl... First you would have to get rid of all those tubes that make your robot too dependant on operators though.. You could achieve much more complex movements if you include more compressed air chambers too.

    November 29, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Qiox

      Good grief. Add additional compressed air tunnel. And remove the tubes that supply the compressed air. That's your bright idea?????

      November 29, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • negative nancy

      We can see Qiox works as the janitor at the robot lab, and is scouring the CNN forums so that he can scribble the answer to the scientists problem on a whiteboard, thus achieving his Good WIll Hunting moment.

      November 29, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • SamSkwirl

      Your the answer to everything is More Tubes up it bum?? What is this?? The movie Brazil????

      November 30, 2011 at 11:24 am |

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