A team of Harvard researchers have taken robotic design even further -- by creating machines that are based on the properties of paper, and are able to run on nothing but air.
These robots have been molded from paper and silicon rubber, and have been created with the express purpose of completing tasks that 'hard' robots cannot. Although the prototypes do not contain any electrical circuitry yet, the researchers hope that their 'soft' robot designs -- that are able to flex, bend, twist and grip -- will be useful in applying to scenarios that require durability not necessarily achieved by electronically sophisticated but 'hard' designs.
According to the research, the 'soft' robots are also able to lift 100 times their weight.
Led by Professor George Whitesides, the team encased paper within an air-tight silicone elastic material, referred to as 'silicone rubbers'. On one side of the paper, tiny air channels permeate the design, allowing the rubber material to bend when air is pumped through the airways.
Researcher Ramses Martinez compares the structures to balloons:
"When the balloon part of the structure expands it doesn't become round (as does a child's balloon), but adopts more complex shapes in response to the constraints imposed by the paper sheets."
In environments where flexibility is more urgent than functions such as performing heavy-duty tasks, this research could provide assistance in a number of tasks unsuited for more mainstream robotics -- for example, those employed on assembly lines. Dr. Martinez believes this could be the niche that the team's designs could fill:
"We hope these structures can be developed into assistants for humans. Unlike the types of (machines) robots used in assembly lines (which are designed to be very strong and fast, but they are also very dangerous for humans to be around when they are operating), these actuators can be more ‘human-friendly’.
They might, thus, provide 'extra fingers or hands' for surgeons, or handle easily damaged structures, such as eggs or fruit."
In a process similar to origami, complex motion and shapes can be created by altering the airflow aimed at these 'soft' robots. The scientists took a measure of inspiration from the motions of flexible animals such as starfish and squid -- but developed a means to use air instead of muscles to create similar levels of flexibility.
More information: "Elastomeric Origami: Programmable Paper–Elastomer Composites as Pneumatic Actuators", Adv. Funct. Mater. 2012.
Image credit: GMW Group Harvard