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New 'Rubber Robot' Crawls Through Small Spaces With Inflatable Limbs

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the new-nightmare dept.

Robotics 56

JoeRobe writes "Researchers at Harvard have developed a pneumatically-controlled rubber robot that combines undulation and quadrupedal 'crawling,' allowing it to maintain a low profile while moving. In a paper published in PNAS (abstract), they describe it as a 'soft robot, composed exclusively of soft materials (elastomeric polymers), which is inspired by animals (e.g., squid, starfish, worms) that do not have hard internal skeletons.' The robot is solely powered by relatively low pressure (10 psi), and controlled by 5 pneumatic actuators. The research was funded by DARPA." The paper is also available (not paywalled) from the researchers' project site (PDF), complete with more creepy images of the squidbot.

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Yes, but... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38230928)

How do you get it back out of your body?

Re:Yes, but... (4, Funny)

CRCulver (715279) | more than 2 years ago | (#38231326)

How do you get it back out of your body?

Just don't tell the doctor that you slipped in the shower. They've heard it too many times before.

I, for one, (5, Funny)

greywire (78262) | more than 2 years ago | (#38230944)

welcome our.. oh never mind.

Re:I, for one, (2)

elrous0 (869638) | more than 2 years ago | (#38231222)

Bah, I don't even get what is supposed to be so revolutionary about this. I've had a pneumatically-controlled rubber robot that can get into small spaces for years.

Re:I, for one, (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38233196)

Technically, that's a hydraulic robot, not a pneumatic one.

Wow! (5, Funny)

Moheeheeko (1682914) | more than 2 years ago | (#38230968)

One step closer to the sex robot, better get my money ready.

Re:Wow! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38233510)

> One step closer to the sex robot, better get my money ready.

Nah, been there, done that... I already got one inflatable limb...

Smut shop applications? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38230990)

I can't help but think my marriage is in danger if this reaches my local Boys R Us...

Applications.. (1)

greywire (78262) | more than 2 years ago | (#38231004)

The uses for an undulating, rubber robot are staggering. When it involves quadrupedal crawling, its even better.

Re:Applications.. (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#38231076)

The only problem is that it's not self contained yet, with the battery, air pump and command module being tethered to it.

Re:Applications.. (1)

skids (119237) | more than 2 years ago | (#38231186)

Doesn't matter if you've got 200 feet of tricky crawlspace to get some cat5 through, since it would be hauling a fish line anyway.

Re:Applications.. (1)

Kadagan AU (638260) | more than 2 years ago | (#38231364)

It sure didn't look nearly powerful enough to haul cable behind it. I'm sure there's many innovations to come still, and this was an early prototype, but I think it's much more likely that it would be used with a video camera mounted on it.. Maybe finding leaks in hard to get to spaces, or searching for survivors in wreckage (as the article suggested). The most impressive part to me was that the prototype only cost $5 in parts..

Re:Applications.. (1)

Sechr Nibw (1278786) | more than 2 years ago | (#38231592)

Hauling a fish line is very easy, it's not the same as hauling cable. You just tie a kite string to the bot, have it crawl through, then tie other end of the kite string to the CAT5 and pull it yourself.

Cats already do that. (1)

mangu (126918) | more than 2 years ago | (#38235896)

I have an old Popular Mechanics magazine from the 1940s showing a trick they used while building the Grand Coulee dam. They tied a string to a cat's tail, put the cat into the gallery, and scared it with a blast of compressed air. Cats hate the hissing sound that compressed air makes.

Perhaps a robot would be more reliable, no danger of it stopping midways to take a nap, but using cats to pull CAT5 cables seem very appropriate to me.

more than one (1, Funny)

recharged95 (782975) | more than 2 years ago | (#38231022)

New rubber, inflatable robot... needs 2nd robot to follow it and provide air lines for power source.

Still--this has real applications....

a href="gmwgroup.harvard.edu (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38231058)

Link fail:
<a href="gmwgroup.harvard.edu
I guess that is Google Chrome's url shortening and Firefox 8's browser.urlbar.trimURLs in action.

Colonoscope that crawls (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38231426)

Now, they just need to develop a colonoscope that crawls into the colon to make it traverse the turns without applying pressure to the colon wall. A relatively painless colonoscopy which would require no sedation.

Re:Colonoscope that crawls (1)

Oswald McWeany (2428506) | more than 2 years ago | (#38231628)

Would require no sedation- but might require a desire to grow a moustache, drink appletinis, and start listening to Cher.

Old News (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38231526)

Seen it already. Nothing to see here, move along.

I'd like to point out... (3, Informative)

squidflakes (905524) | more than 2 years ago | (#38231834)

The squid is the wrong cephalopod to reference here. The motion is much more octopus-like, as octopuses only have a single hard structure in their bodies, the beak, while squid and cuttlefish both have an internal shell. In the case of the cuttlefish, the cuttlebone is roughly the length and width of the cuttlefish's mantle. In the case of the squid, the pin shell is slightly less than the mantle length, and usually only a few centimeters wide, depending on the size of the animal.

Not a robot. (4, Insightful)

blair1q (305137) | more than 2 years ago | (#38232036)

Look, if it has to be tethered to an enormous power and control source, it is not a robot, it is a...what? a mechanical peripheral, at best.

I have the same basic problem with the "robot wars" stuff. If there's a guy with a controller box to one side of the arena deciding what the thing will do, it's an RC toy, not a robot.

Make it autonomous, self-propelled, and self-powered, and it's a robot. Otherwise, it's not any more of a robot than your printer is.

Re:Not a robot. (1)

uigrad_2000 (398500) | more than 2 years ago | (#38232414)

Well, from what I see in the .pdf, they can set the gait of the robot, and then just let it crawl, using the preset list of positions.

It is autonomous in a sense. The controls for the different positions come from within the software. The human only gives a single instruction (walk with this gait), and then all the small instructions to make it function come from software.

As far as the semantics go, I am a bit annoyed that they call it a robot, since there are no feedback loops that allow the device to make any type of decisions. But, consider that:

  • a) Robotics is a much newer word than Robot, and has a much stricter definition. Using non-biological methods to move limbs is frequently referred to as a subset of robotics, even when the device is not autonomous.
  • b) The word "robot" most likely comes from a play written in 1920. The "robots" here are essentially artificial life, made from some strange new chemical. The word "robot" comes from a Czech word that roughly means "worker". Although the robots in the play are fully autonomous, the idea of a non-living worker does not imply autonomy.

tl:dr: I'd let it slide

Re:Not a robot. (1)

blair1q (305137) | more than 2 years ago | (#38241432)

Is a power screwdriver a robot, then?

I agree, the science of robotics requires electromechanical control and all the motion-control analysis that implies.

But a "robotic arm" is not a robot. It could be a piece of a robot, but it's not a robot. Unless maybe it can decide to strangle its master. Asimov's laws are not actual laws, yet, that I know of, but in this case the need for them can be a test for whether a thing is a robot or not, although that's a rather stronger test, as all I want is autonomous behavior, not necessarily the ability to decide whether or not to kill someone.

Re:Not a robot. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38235544)

Assume its a proof of principle. You could add pumps to its strategics axes which are then controlled remotely to pump in or out.

Read this sentence out loud. (1)

AbRASiON (589899) | more than 2 years ago | (#38232222)

New 'Rubber Robot' Crawls Through Small Spaces With Inflatable Limbs

Say that sentence out loud to 5 different people on the street, be sure to 'emphasize' the relevant section. This is the best heading on slashdot in years. I must admit when I'm feeling a bit adventurous I don't mind a bit of the old 'rubber robot' you know what I'm saying?

Re:Read this sentence out loud. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38232306)

>>> "I don't mind a bit of the old 'rubber robot' you know what I'm saying?"

No, I'm a bit hard of thinking, so could you spell it out for me?

Re:Read this sentence out loud. (1)

Bacon Bits (926911) | more than 2 years ago | (#38232334)

Personally, I found the headline combined fact that they published the paper in something called PNAS to be so over the top that I questioned if it was something the Onion produced.

Re:Read this sentence out loud. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38232880)

And, Coauthored by Michael Wang?

next phase design? (3, Interesting)

wierd_w (1375923) | more than 2 years ago | (#38232608)

Ok, jokes about inflatable rubber robots crawling through small spaces aside....

I imagine a kind of pneumatic (or better, hydraulic) soft bodied robot that has a kind of "fluid logic" system that squeezes off the supply lines to the "muscle chambers", and a single internal electrical contraction chamber that serves as the main pump.

Say for instance, the main pump simply squeezes a large, central space somehow, and has say, 8 output lines from that chamber. Surrounding each line is a "pinch" cell, which is a smaller version of the main pump cell, but with no output lines. When active, it constricts the fluid flow down the tube it surrounds, preventing working fluid from passing.

The tubes continue and terminate at the expansion chambers in the robot's limbs.

The computer circuitry which drives the main cell, and the 8 control cells, is tiny and self contained. Possibly an epoxy blob design. This would be the only rigid part of the robot, though it too could be flexible with the right design. (Use flexible substrate electronics, like that graphene ink approach.)

Depending on how those 8 control valves are opened or closed, the action of the main pump cycle would actuate the robot. 8 valves would give you 256 possible muscle instructions to work with.

Conceivably, you could even do "tricks" this way, by inflating a limb motor cell, then blocking the fluid return by closing the valve, to hold one part of the robot stiff, while the remaining working fluid drives some other part of the robot, to accomplish some task. An example use might be "jumping", since the release of the control valves would violently snap the muscle as the pressure released.

I could see some pretty complex movements being done this way.

The issue is how to power the robot. A laboratory test robot might walk on a special floor which doubles as an inductive charger, which powers the robot's electronics, but a real world softbody robot would something a little more real.

Re:next phase design? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38236480)

I'd give it a magnetorheological fluid skeleton. It's flexible as long as the electromagnets are off and stiff when on. That way you don't have as many valves, just electronics running the electromagnets. You can make the whole thing stiff or just certain sections and move the rest.

Control would be more complicated as your can't move segments in opposite directions at the same time (unless you wire (hose?) contiguous sections in opposite directions.

The electromagnets would probably use more power than your valves though

Electroactive Polymers (1)

Joshua Fan (1733100) | more than 2 years ago | (#38234224)

don't require bulky air compressors and have been around for decades, and far surpass this in strength and precision.

Electroactive polymers [wikipedia.org]

Move along people, nothing to see here but balloon animals.

breakdancer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38235306)

It looks like a tired breakdancer.

Hilarious video (1)

olau (314197) | more than 2 years ago | (#38236190)

People, do yourself a favour and go watch the video. It does look pretty hilarious.

In some way, it reminds me of my 2-month old baby, actually.

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