Tolley with his robot.

Fire, ice, and the weight of a car- this little robot can withstand it all and crawl away.

Michael Tolley and his team from Harvard University have created a robot that lacks a rigid exoskeleton. Its squishy casing allows it to survive intense conditions and extreme environments, such as temperatures above boiling and below freezing- even under the wheel of an automobile.

The prototype is longer than previous models, measuring 65 centimeters long. Its larger size allows for an internal battery pack instead of a tether, which the older models required, to power the robot for 2 hours. An electrically powered air compressor system drives its movement in a pneumatic fashion that when coupled with its soft body makes it optimum for navigating tight spaces.

During experiments, Tolley’s robot was able to walk through a snowstorm with temperatures reaching 9 degrees below Celcius (16 degrees Fahrenheit). It also withstood flames for 20 seconds, resisted water and acids, and had its limbs driven over by a car- all of which it walked away from. Currently, the machine’s electrical components are exposed- but imbedding them inside the robot’s soft body would be an easy feat, according to Tolley.

The team’s next move is to improve the speed and mobility of the robot. Some ideas they have for achieving this goal is the possibility of adding feet, as well as programming that would allow it to respond to obstacles or navigate towards a goal. Tolley and his colleagues envision the design as a stepping stone for a new generation of malleable robots that can jump, slither and grasp fragile objects.

“The field of soft robotics is now becoming mature enough to show effective applications,” says Cecilia Laschi of the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. Laschi is currently developing a rubbery robotic octopus that can navigate the sea floor, and is very impressed with Tolley’s robot. “This is a good example of how soft robotics can help build very robust devices, with very low risk of damage,” she says.

Source: New Scientist

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