Soft robots have been developed to study aquatic life and grasp objects with human touch. And an origami-based robot could be used on the assembly line or in space. These an many more designs represent exciting, real-world developments.
Now, the University of Houston has developed a class of soft robots composed of ultrathin sensing, actuating electronics and temperature-sensitive artificial muscle that can adapt to the environment and crawl similar to an inchworm or caterpillar.
The university sees this type of robot being used in surgery or rehabilitation or even search and rescue in natural disasters or on the battlefield. Because the robot can change its shape in response to its surroundings, it could slip through narrow crevices to search for survivors in a disaster or bombing.
This type of ability to crawl in tight spaces while having ultrathin deformable sensors and actuators wouldn’t be possible in traditional rigid robots that are used in automation or other physical tasks. Using a robot in the shape of an earworm was the design choice because these creatures have soft compliant bodies without any rigid components and have the ability to adapt their shapes to the environment.
The prototype soft robot includes a liquid crystal elastomer, doped with carbon black nanoparticles to enhance thermal conductivity, which functions as the artificial muscle. This is combined with ultrathin mesh-shaped stretchable thermal actuators and silicon-based light sensors. The thermal actuators provide heat to activate the robot, researchers say.
The soft robot prototype is only 28.6 millimeters in length but it could be scaled up, the University of Houston says. The robot could also be powered by smart materials activated by light or other cues.
"This is the first of its kind," says Cunjiang Yu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston. "You can use other sensors, depending on what you want it to do."
The full research can be found in the journal Advanced Materials.