Robotic engineers have been tapping into nature for inspiration for a while now. We already have cockroachbots, snakebots, geckobots, and… this.
But one thing each of these robots has in common is the benefit of a skeleton. Soft-robots, while overshadowed by their traditional exoskeleton-ed forebearers, possess enormous potential for the entire field of robotic engineering.
As this new video from IEEE Spectrum shows, a team of researchers in Livorno, Italy has created a couple of aquatic bots that emulate the shape and movements of one of the world's most charismatic invertebrates: the octopus.
Using flexible electronics, smart control mechanisms, and very little computing power, engineers built a soft Octobot that's able to "walk" across uneven terrain and manipulate objects, just like the real thing.
The octopus is a pretty remarkable creature. While it has no bones or exoskeleton, it can exert incredible strength and force by activating various muscles through its body. Octopi can also elongate and shorten their arms using this same mechanism.
Octobot is able to copy this ability using coils of wires made from a material called shape-memory alloy that are nestled inside some of its "tentacles." When a current passes through one of these coils, it heats up and contracts. So by sending current through each of these coils, researchers are able to expand and contract Octobot's arms in a manner that's eerily similar to an actual cephalopod's movements. This allows the robot to move and pick up small objects that it comes across.
To design Octobot to crawl, the engineers wanted to mimic the pushing-off technique that real octopi use to shuffle their way along the seafloor. Two simple, interior cables in each of the robot's arms allow it to propel its mass in small hops across the floor in a way that sort of looks like an actual octopus' movements.
The researchers built another octopus-inspired bot called "Poseidrone" that tackled the more difficult challenge of swimming. A few different tactics were employed before engineers decided the best swimming mechanism was to give up control of Poseidrone's arms altogether. The end result is a little kooky-looking (think a chicken flapping its wings underwater), but it gets the job done.
One of the coolest things about Poseidrone, however, is that it barely has to "think" in order to swim and perform other functions. Researchers once again looked to the real octopus to copy its "embodied intelligence," which delegates mobility to its peripheral nervous system, and makes its graceful movements almost reflexive. Models based on fluid dynamics, buoyancy, and other factors allow the little bot to move around without much additional computing.
Once again, biomimicry proves to be one of the most exciting challenges of robotic engineering. Octobot's makers haven't said how their robots can be implemented in the real world, but they do remind me a little of these autonomous killing machines.