Soft Robots Could Open Up New World of Spy Tactics

By Eric Beidel

The military has ramped up its spy game over the course of the war in Afghanistan, but there remain some places that drones and troops simply can’t go.

The Pentagon could turn to tiny soft robots to fit in the nooks and crannies of the battlefield, taking sensors ever closer to the enemy. Officials have touted the work of George Whitesides, a professor at Harvard University who has been studying robots that take inspiration from origami and animals such as squid, starfish, and worms. His team’s research is being funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The robots consist entirely of soft materials and do not have internal skeletons. They require no sensors to move. Elastomeric polymer is combined with paper structures. A series of chambers throughout the robot inflate, and compressed air drives the robots into motion.

“The range of structures that can be fabricated by simple creasing of paper is remarkable, which is the basis of origami,” Whitesides’ team wrote in a recently published paper in the Advanced Functional Materials scientific journal.

The Harvard research team shared with National Defense several videos of the robots in action. In one, an X-shaped robot goes from standing on all fours to laying flat on the ground before performing something akin to “the worm” dance to move itself underneath a plate of glass 2 centimeters above the ground. In another, a robot shaped like a spider descends upon an uncooked egg, wraps its limbs around it, picks it up, and then sets it back down without cracking it.

Topics: Robotics

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