A group of researchers at Harvard Engineering School have developed a soft, two-foot-long robot that can survive snow, flames, water, and being run over by a car—and then walk it off.
“We really wanted to challenge the notion of a robot as a metal hunk,” Michael Tolley, the team’s lead researcher, explains in the video. The quadruped robot (that means it walks on four legs) is the first of its kind—previous soft robots have been tethered to something stationary and were much smaller than the one Tolley’s team created.
Tolley told me his team took much of their inspiration from nature when developing the robot. They looked specifically at animals like octopi, because they have no skeleton but still move around in water and on land, and adapt to their environments.
So why make a soft robot? Tolley pointed out that they’re “inherently less dangerous” than hard ones. “If you were to go into a factory setting where they use robot arms to weld car parts, just the large, rigid arms flying around very quickly can be very dangerous,” he said. “A soft robot like this one is much less likely to cause harm.”
And because of the robot’s extraordinary flame resistance—it’s made of a stiff silicone rubber, with fabric underneath, and filled with hollow glass microspheres—the designers hope that similar creations could be used to aid search and rescue missions in the wake of events such as fires and avalanches. Tolley suggested that the robots could eventually be used in dangerous chemical situations where humans could not be sent, like Fukushima.
It’s still not ready for widespread use, though. For one thing, it presently moves at a crawling pace of 18 meters per hour. Tolley also said he and his team hope to test its abilities on rough terrain, and challenge it to pick up objects.
He added: “Let’s say you were stuck in an avalanche, you’d much rather have something that is soft like this coming to grab you.” A crawling robot resistant to flames or being run over by cars? Still sounds plenty scary.