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You don’t need metal rods and motors to build a capable robot. A new bot developed by MIT scientists gets around on four floppy, squishy legs and can survive water, snow and being run over by a car.
It’s known as a soft robot. A compressor pumps air through the robot’s legs to raise and lower them, causing it to walk (though it’s more of a lumbering crawl).
The robot’s body is made of silicone, which is stable and strong enough to withstand hot and cold temperatures or extreme amounts of weight. The robot can go two hours on a single battery charge or indefinitely when tethered.
The MIT team’s big accomplishment with this robot, which was described in the September issue of Soft Robotics, was reducing its weight by studding its body with hollow glass spheres. At more than two feet long, it is also the largest soft robot ever built by the group.
It also cost just $1,111 to build. It’s a common benefit of soft robots, which cost a fraction of the tens, or hundreds, of thousands of dollars it often costs to build a university robot. It’s already possible to 3D print basic soft robots on desktop machines.
Soft robotics is a relatively new area of study, but researchers are already finding working with soft materials doesn’t mean they need to give up on strength or mobility. Examples like the MIT machine demonstrate how in a disaster situation they could be especially useful. When rescuing someone from a burning building, would you rather send in a robot that topples over and fails after one bonk on the head or one that keeps on wriggling forward? A soft robot may be the answer.