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new untethered soft robot


New Soft Robot “Gumby” Escapes From Lab, Gets Run Over By Car — And Lives!

Researchers from Harvard and Cornell have built a soft robot that looks like Gumby without a head, which can roam freely outside of the laboratory.

File this one under “O” for Off The Leash: researchers from Harvard and Cornell have teamed up to build a soft robot that looks like Gumby without a head, which can operate freely in real world conditions outside of the laboratory. How amazing is that? We’re not exactly sure exactly how amazing that is yet because we haven’t checked into the soft robotics field for a while, so let’s take a closer look at Headless Gumby.

new untethered soft robot

Untethered soft robot (screenshot) courtesy of Harvard/Cornell.

Gumby Unchained

Soft robots are generally based on mimicking soft creatures in nature including worms and jellyfish. Like the name says, soft robots have no (or very few) rigid structural features.

That places a pretty tight limitation on the weight of the robot’s power source, so the conventional approach to creating movement in soft robots has been to power them from a stationary source through a tether, typically using compressed gas.

While a tether can serve double duty as a delivery system, a robot that can operate freely has obvious advantages. According to the research team, Headless Gumby is the first successful attempt at operating a free-ranging soft robot outside of the lab (we have no idea if it has an official nickname so we’ll use Headless Gumby for now), so yes, that is pretty amazing.

A Soft Robot As Tough As Glass

In order to function without an outside power source, the weight of the soft robot has to be kept to a minimum. Between the structure and functioning systems, the robot still has to be able to support its own weight and move around at the same time.

Along with highly miniaturized, highly efficient components the team decided to use a silicone-based body, but bear with us for a minute to explain why this is no ordinary silicone body.

That’s silicone, btw, not silicon. Silicon is the second most abundant element in the crust of the Earth. It rarely occurs in pure form in nature, but it is commonly found in combination with oxygen as quartz and other minerals in the rock group of silicates.

Silicone (aka synthetic rubber) is a manufactured compound of silicon, carbon, and oxygen. It can also occur in nature, but rarely.

Where were we? Oh, right. Rather than designing Headless Gumby to perform specific tasks, the team focused on building a durable soft robot that can withstand harsh conditions, which explains the choice of silicone as a base material. Though not particularly lightweight, various forms of silicone are highly durable.

In order to reduce the weight of the silicone, the team incorporated hollow glass microspheres into the material. The result was a 40 percent savings in weight, and if you check out the soft robot video starring Headless Gumby you can see that even with all that glass in his skin, he handily survived being run over by an SUV.

Here’s a rundown of the basic characteristics of the untethered soft robot (edited for clarity):

We modified four characteristics of the tethered robot in order to develop an untethered one that is resilient to a variety of environmental conditions. We (i) designed a higher strength (and lower density) composite elastomeric material for the body so that the robot could operate at higher pneumatic pressures; (ii) designed a larger body size to accommodate and support the power source; (iii) employed a modified Pneu-Net (PN) architecture [that refers to the pneumatic system] to allow more rapid and stable actuation than our previous Pneu-Net design; and (iv) incorporated an electrically powered on-board air compressor, a system of valves, and a controller for pneumatic actuation.

The electrical power is provided by a lithium-polymer battery pack that can last about two hours depending on the surface and the robot’s gait. The robot is also designed to switch to tether mode for longer operating periods.

The Amazing Carbon-Sequestering Soft Robot

Here’s another interesting thing about this soft robot. Like other soft robots it runs on a pneumatic system powered by compressed gas, but it uses liquid (compressed) carbon dioxide for its high energy density.


We’re bringing that up because maybe it’s just us but this whole idea of pumping excess carbon dioxide underground for the next generation to worry about doesn’t smell right.

We’re much more interested in systems that reclaim excess carbon dioxide. Another approach is illustrated by the company Lanza Tech with help from the Energy (group hug) Department, by NewLight Technologies, and by Finland’s Cuyha Innovation Oy.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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