Squishy Robots That Can Hide and Seek

Researchers have built soft-bodied robots that can either blend into or stand out in their environment by changing their color. According to Sindya Bhanoo of The New York Times, these silicone-based robots can also glow in the dark.

The rubbery, four-legged robots mimic the behavior of soft-bodied creatures like sea stars and squid. Most robots today are large and rigid and mimic the movements of mammals.

“Starfish and things of this kind are simpler than mammals,” said George M. Whitesides, a chemist at Harvard who is involved in the research. “Less able to pick up a door, but maybe able to perform other tasks.”

He and his colleagues published their findings in the current issue of the journal Science.

The soft robots are made of a silicone-based polymer called polydimethylsiloxane, or PDMS. They were created using 3-D printers, as were the recently added “color layers.”

The color layers were built with channels into which researchers could pump colored liquids to change the colors and patterns of the robots as desired.

By pumping heated or cooled liquids into the channels, the researchers were also able to camouflage the robots in the infrared.

The coloration feature may one day be useful in building search-and-rescue robots, Dr. Whitesides said. By using color, the robots can serve as a visual marker to help search crews.

“They are very light and can make their way across mud in a way that a heavy robot would have trouble with,” Dr. Whitesides said. “A way of seeing a robot there is to make it very visible in the infrared.”

The robots can also pick up fragile objects, like uncooked eggs and fruits, he said — or even a live mouse.

As a bonus, the soft-bodied robots are inexpensive to build. The current prototypes cost less than $10 each.

- As seen in The New York Times
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