'Soft' robots that can move on their own

Written by: Bethan Grylls | Published:

A new class of soft robot, composed of ultrathin sensing, actuating electronics and temperature-sensitive artificial muscle that can adapt to the environment and crawl, has been announced by researchers at the University of Houston.

As the robot body senses a change in environment, it is able to change shape in response to its surroundings. Assistant professor Yu, Bill D. Cook of the University of Houston, says potential applications range from surgery and rehabilitation, to search and rescue in natural disasters or on the battlefield.

The team claim these soft robots, made of soft artificial muscle and ultrathin deformable sensors and actuators, have significant advantages over the traditional rigid robots used for automation and other physical tasks.

The work took inspiration from nature. According to the team: “Many creatures, such as inchworms that have completely soft compliant bodies without any rigid components, exhibit unprecedented abilities in adapting their shapes and morphologies and unique locomotion behaviours.”

This prototype adaptive soft robot includes a liquid crystal elastomer, doped with carbon black nanoparticles to enhance thermal conductivity, as the artificial muscle, combined with ultrathin mesh shaped stretchable thermal actuators and silicon-based light sensors. The thermal actuators provide heat to activate the robot.

The prototype is 28.6 millimeters in length, but Yu believes it could easily be scaled up, and that, along with experimenting with various types of sensors, is the next step. While the prototype uses heat-sensitive sensors, the team believes it could employ smart materials activated by light or other cues.

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