Hid­ing in plain sight

SP's MAI - - TECHNOLOGY -

This ro­bot is made of sil­i­cone. It can walk, change colour and light up in the dark. It can even change tem­per­a­ture. And it can do all of this for less than $100. In the fu­ture, ro­bots like this might be made for just a few dol­lars. Re­searchers led by Dr Ge­orge White­sides and Dr Stephen Morin at Har­vard Univer­sity’s Depart­ment of Chem­istry and Chem­i­cal Bi­ol­ogy and the Wyss In­sti­tute for Bi­o­log­i­cally In­spired Engi­neer­ing demon­strated that mi­croflu­idic chan­nels in soft ro­bots en­able func­tions in­clud­ing ac­tu­a­tion, cam­ou­flage, dis­play, fluid trans­port and tem­per­a­ture reg­u­la­tion. The work is be­ing per­formed un­der DARPA’s Max­i­mum Mo­bil­ity and Ma­nip­u­la­tion (M3) pro­gramme.

Why does this mat­ter to the Depart­ment of De­fense (DoD)? DARPA fore­sees ro­bots of many shapes and sizes con­tribut­ing to a wide range of fu­ture de­fence mis­sions, but ro­bot­ics is still a young field that has fo­cused much of its at­ten­tion so far on com­plex hard­ware. Con­se­quently, the costs as­so­ci­ated with ro­bot­ics are typ­i­cally very high. What DARPA has achieved with sil­i­cone-based soft ro­bots is de­vel­op­ment of a very low cost man­u­fac­tur­ing method that uses molds. By in­tro­duc­ing nar­row chan­nels into the molds through which air and var­i­ous types of flu­ids can be pumped, a ro­bot can be made to change its colour, con­trast, ap­par­ent shape and tem­per­a­ture to blend with its en­vi­ron­ment, glow through chemi­lu­mi­nes­cence, and most im­por­tantly, achieve ac­tu­a­tion, or move­ment, through pneu­matic pres­suri­sa­tion and in­fla­tion of the chan­nels. The com­bi­na­tion of low cost and in­creased ca­pa­bil­i­ties means DARPA has re­moved one of the ma­jor ob­sta­cles to greater DoD adoption of ro­bot tech­nol­ogy.

Gill Pratt, the DARPA pro­gramme man­ager for M3, put the achieve­ment in con­text: “DARPA is de­vel­op­ing a suite of ro­bots that draw in­spi­ra­tion from the in­ge­nu­ity and ef­fi­ciency of na­ture. For de­fense ap­pli­ca­tions, in­ge­nu­ity and ef­fi­ciency are not enough—ro­botic sys­tems must also be cost-ef­fec­tive. This novel ro­bot is a sig­nif­i­cant ad­vance to­wards achiev­ing all three goals.”

Soft ro­bots are use­ful be­cause they are re­silient and can ma­noeu­vre through very con­strained spa­ces. For this demon­stra­tion, the re­searchers used teth­ers to at­tach the con­trol sys­tem and pump pres­surised gases and liq­uids into the ro­bot. Teth­ered op­er­a­tion re­duces the size and weight of such ro­bots by leav­ing power sources and pumps off-board, but fu­ture pro­to­types could in­cor­po­rate that equip­ment in a self-con­tained sys­tem. At a pump­ing rate of 2.25 millil­itres per minute, colour change in the ro­bot re­quired 30 sec­onds. Once filled, the colour lay­ers re­quire no power to sus­tain the colour.

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