More and more, it's looking like many of the robots in the not-too-distant future won't be hard, humanoid C-3PO-like affairs, but will instead be squishy, soft-bodied devices. Not only would such robots be better able to withstand mechanical shock, vibration and compression, but they would also be able to do things like squeezing through small spaces - an ability which come in very handy in settings like disaster sites or battlefields. Previous experiments with soft-bodied robots have included Tufts University's GoQBot, which was clearly inspired by caterpillars. More recently, scientists from Harvard University demonstrated a squishy creation of their own, which could probably best be likened to a robotic starfish ... although it was apparently also inspired by squids.
The elastomeric polymer-bodied robot has four legs, is five inches (12.7 cm) long, and took just two months to construct. Each leg can be separately actuated, by pumping air into it either manually or through a computer-controlled system. Different combinations of leg movements result in a variety of possible gaits, including slithering and inch worm-like undulating. For this reason, it is known as a multigait robot.
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So far, it has managed to make its way across surfaces such as felt, gravel, mud and Jell-O - the flavor was not stated. It has also been able to squirm through a 0.75-inch (19-mm) gap beneath a suspended pane of glass a total of 15 times, usually taking less than a minute to get through. The video below shows it in action.
Before Harvard's multigait robot can be considered practical for field use, it will need to become self-contained. Presently, it relies on an externally-powered pneumatic system.
A paper on the project was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.