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Soft Robots Are Even Creepier Than Hard Ones

The future-robot is squishy, bendy, flexible, made of silicone rubber and powered by fluid and air.

by Meghan Neal
Mar 24 2014, 8:50pm
The making of the Glaucus soft robot. Image: Giant Eye/Flickr

Boxy metal machines with computers for eyes and a choppy mechanical voice only describe a tiny sliver of the robots penetrating society today. Today we’ve got super-lifelike robots, artistic robots, animal-like robots, robots in space, in the military, robots that do your chores for you, robots that do your job for you, robots that can save your life, and robots that can kill you.

And if that's all not reason enough to reevaluate our 20th century sci-fi image of what a “robot” is, now robots are getting soft. As in, squishy, bendy, flexible—made of silicone rubber and powered by fluid and air.

The field of soft robotics is advancing fast, and this month made waves when MIT released a video of its soft, agile robofish that can autonomously move just like a regular fish. Today, another aquatic robotic prototype made its debut: the Glaucus, named after a blue sea slug, which is just what it looks like.

Glaucus is an open-source semi-autonomous bot developed at Super Releaser, a soft robotics research lab. After a year of prototyping with 3D printers, the team released a video today of the machine-creature walking on its own, and it is some pretty creepy stuff. Cutting-edge, sure, but creepy.

The roboslug deforms and bends its body to propel itself forward, verrry slowly. "It has hollow interior chambers that interdigitate with one another,” the project site explains. “When either of these chambers is pressurized it deforms and bends the structure of the robot. This bending produces the walking motion.”

Back at MIT, the bio-inspired swimming robot runs on carbon dioxide, and future prototypes will be powered by water. The still-nameless “soft fish” can swim for up to 30 minutes and convulse to reverse direction in a split second (100 milliseconds, to be exact), just like real fish does when it's trying to escape danger.  

These are just the latest soft robot proof of concepts coming out of the lab, and it gives us a peek at the strange and eerie future where autonomous, animal-like machines can blend with their environment, crawling and swimming around among living creatures, including humans.

It's not a far-fetched picture. Safe and seamless coexistence is the primary reason engineers are so interested in soft robotics. To reach the full potential of smart machines, they have to be able to work with and interact with humans safely, without the risk that a rogue metal limb will knock someone in the head. Rubbery material also makes the machines more mobile—if it's OK to brush up against a wall or bump into a chair, that opens up a whole new realm of places the robots can go and tasks they can do.

So it’s probably time to retire the C3P0/Wall-E image of robots—though I’m not convinced wriggly bulbous roboanimals will help shake the unsettling image of robots that people seem resistant to let go of. But now that anyone with a 3D printer and some time on their hands can make their own pet roboslug and watch it crawl across the living room floor, maybe that’ll start to change.