New walking soft robots could one day explore deep space

20 Jun 2017

Illustration of the DeployBot in space. Image: Wang et al/Royal Society of Chemistry

Rather than sending humans to far-flung planets, walking soft robots might go in our place, if a new breakthrough is anything to go by.

As Dr Conor Walsh from the Harvard Biodesign Lab recently told us, the field of soft robotics offers a multitude of possibilities, particularly within healthcare and rehabilitation for humans, but also engineering and industry.

However, according to, one area where it might have far-reaching applications – quite literally – is within space exploration.

That is one of the goals for a newly developed machine believed to be the first deployable, walking soft robot.

Developed at Seoul National University and Sungkyunkwan University, the curious-looking robot known as DeployBot contains no motors or other mechanical components, but can walk when an electric current is applied to shape-memory alloy wires embedded in its frame.

As the current heats the wires, the robot’s flexible segments contract and bend to provide motion and, by controlling the current to various segments, different walking gaits can be achieved.

Publishing the findings in Materials Horizons, Wei Wang and his team have heralded it as a major breakthrough due to its low weight and low cost, as well as the fact that it can be easily deployed and take heavy loads. Additionally, its compact size and ability to be reconfigured into different forms may make it useful for applications such as space missions and seabed exploration, as well as within the household.

Reproducible on the nanoscale?

To achieve this, the robot is built from eight different parts, split evenly between the body and its legs, which all lock together with internal magnets.

So far, the robot has two different walking gaits, taking inspiration from different types of animals in the natural world. The first gait is similar to the creeping of an inchworm, while the second follows a more familiar four-legged walk. However, the latter walk requires the DeployBot to take all of its weight on two legs, meaning it cannot walk unless it is placed on a sandy surface underwater.

It won’t be going anywhere fast, with a top speed of just two metres per hour, but its creators expect it will still be useful in applications where this is not an issue.

In the future, the team believes it could one day be fabricated at the micro-scale or even nanoscale, potentially opening up a whole new range of possibilities in science.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic