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Watch This Wriggling Soft Robot Survive Fire and Snow

If you already thought soft robots were a bit creepy, check out this little dude.

by Victoria Turk
Sep 8 2014, 2:50pm

If you already thought soft robots were a bit creepy, check out this little dude. Not only does it slither along like some kind of squishy four-legged starfish, it's also practically indestructible. Factor Tech reported that the researchers behind the "resilient, untethered soft robot" pushed their creation through snow, water, fire, all in the name of developing a soft robot that could hold its own in the real world.

The video above shows the bot clambering across a snowy scene, splashing through a puddle, taking a few tentative steps (and looking unsettlingly like it's writhing in pain) over some kind of barbecue, and even being sadistically squished under a car wheel. 

Sure, the puddle is shallow and the researchers admitted that the bot's time over the flames was "limited." Note the video is also sped up by four or even eight times in the different clips—and it still looks like it's in slow-mo. This thing isn't going to win any races but, as bots go, it's still quite the extremophile.

Rough terrain and unpredictable conditions are a notoriously tricky challenge for robots, with the best-known conventional robots still pretty shaky on their feet. Just a few days ago, MIT released new footage of DARPA's much-hyped humanoid bot ATLAS, and while its movements are improved, it's still a bit, well, lumbering.

That's fine for lab work, but in precarious environments such as a bot might come across in a search and rescue mission or a military application—i.e. some places where mobile robots will be most useful—you need a machine that won't come crashing down in a light breeze.

Soft robots have their own troubles when it comes to frolicking outdoors. As the Harvard and Cornell researchers note in their paper, published in the journal Soft Robotics, "Many of these soft robots are actuated pneumatically using gas transferred to them from a stationary source via a flexible tether." But if you want to take a robot outside, you don't really want it on a leash the whole time.

Their bot therefore uses an electrically-powered air compressor and has a battery pack that can last several hours onboard (though it can be tethered instead). The soft robot is just over half a metre long and made of silicone material that is waterproof, fire-retardant for around 50 seconds, and unaffected by temperatures down to -20 Celsius. The researchers concluded that their bot had a "surprising resilience."

The robot also has a significant payload of 2.2kg, equal to its own weight, which means it can carry equipment like a camera on its back. Another advantage it has over conventional "hard" robots is cost—the materials added up to a total of $1,111.

The starfish-like bot does have its drawbacks though, the first being that painfully slow pace. And even if soft robots can survive the elements better, the researchers note that they are generally more sensitive to being ripped and torn than their metal cousins. In this case, having all the mechanics on the robot's back also created a vulnerable spot, and you'll see that the car only runs over the little wriggler's legs, missing its more delicate components.

Despite its limitations, the experiment shows an impressive performance by a robot left to its own devices out in the wild, and offers more evidence that the robots of the future might be less Terminator and more Flubber. At least you'll have plenty of time to get away if it starts oh-so-slowly wriggling its tentacles in your direction.

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