Meet Octobot: the first autonomous, entirely soft robot

25 Aug 2016

The Octobot. Image via Lori Sanders/Harvard University

In a major breakthrough for soft robotics, a team from Harvard University has demonstrated the first autonomous, entirely soft robot with no electronic parts, and it is called Octobot.

With soft robotics expected to revolutionise everything from medicine to manufacturing, the one outstanding challenge remaining for researchers was to create an entirely soft robot.

Previous examples and models highlighting the technology’s capabilities were limited, in the sense that they were not entirely soft, requiring either a tethered electronics system or internal hard electronic components.

Now, however, in a major breakthrough in the field, a team from Harvard University has revealed the first entirely soft robot, which is completely autonomous and powered by chemical reactions.

Publishing its findings in Nature, the research team explained that its creation, which it is calling Octobot, was constructed using a hybrid assembly approach that allowed them to 3D print each of the functional components within the soft robot body, including the fuel storage, power and actuation.

Platinum reaction

Whereas many previous soft robots were controlled electronically, Octobot is pneumatic-based, meaning a chemical reaction transforms a small amount of hydrogen peroxide into gas that inflates the robot’s arms, causing them to move.

“Fuel sources for soft robots have always relied on some type of rigid components,” said Michael Wehner, co-first author of the paper. “The wonderful thing about hydrogen peroxide is that a simple reaction between the chemical and a catalyst – in this case, platinum – allows us to replace rigid power sources.”

This reaction is then controlled using an advanced microfluidic logic circuit, comparable to a basic electronic oscillator, which is easily replicable, according to the Harvard team.

An easily-replicable creation

Speaking of the potential for Octobot and soft robotics in general, lead researcher Robert Wood said: “One long-standing 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.”

“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 next stage of the Octobot project, the team said, is to find a way of allowing Octobot to crawl, swim and interact with its environment.

In the meantime, researchers like Dónal Holland are attempting to encourage people of all ages to engage with soft robotics using means like the Soft Robotics Toolkit showcased at Inspirefest 2016.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic