A new soft robot can walk through fire and get run over by a car without any damage.

Photo Credit: Harvard

Photo Credit: Harvard

Harvard researchers have developed the first untethered soft robot. From the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with the Wyss Institute of Biology, the robot is a quadruped that can stand and walk on its own.

The researchers were able to design the robot so that it carries everything it needs to operate on its back, include micro compressors, control systems and batteries.

“Earlier versions of soft robots were all tethered, which works fine in some applications, but what we wanted to do was challenge people’s concept of what a robot has to look like,” said Michael Tolley, a research associate at the Wyss Institute and the study's first author. “We think the reason people have settled on using metal and rigid materials for robots is because they’re easier to model and control. This work is very inspired by nature, and we wanted to demonstrate that soft materials can also be the basis for robots.”

The robot is much bigger than soft robots that came before it, which were about the size of a steno pad. The new robot is about a half-meter tall and can carry up to 7.5 pounds on its back.

“As soon as you start thinking about putting the basic components you need to make this work — micro-compressors, controllers, and batteries — on an untethered robot, you need a design that can carry those parts,” Tolley said. “You need to think about something that can handle much higher pressures, so there are materials challenges and there are design challenges and there are control challenges.”

The robot is made with composite silicone rubber to keep its weight low. The bottom is made from Kevlar to keep the robot lightweight and tough. This allows the machine to withstand extreme conditions. For example, it can be completely submerged in snow or water, walk through fire or even be run over by a car.

The robots still need to be outfitted with sensors and researchers need to increase its speed, but Tolley says the development of this soft robot could completely change the limitations of such machines.

“One of the things that limit our imagination is that factory robots are very large and scary and dangerous to be around,” he said. “As a lay person, you can’t just walk into a factory where industrial robots are working. But a soft system is inherently less dangerous, so you can start to interact with it more, and I think that opens up many more opportunities.”

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