If robot limbo contests ever become popular, my money's riding on the team of Harvard scientists that just built a robot flexible enough to do the caterpillar dance under a door.
Led by chemist George M. Whitesides, the team's Gumby-like robot is the latest prototype in the emerging field of soft-bodied robots. In recent years, scientists have drawn inspiration from animals without hard skeletons, like squids and starfish, to develop bendable bots that can contort into hard-to-reach spaces, making them ideal to navigate post-disaster or battlefield terrain.
"The unique ability for soft robots to deform allows them to go places that traditional rigid-body robots cannot," Matthew Walter, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an email to Yahoo News.
The new robot is 5 inches long and took two months to build. Its four legs can be controlled separately by pumping air into the limbs, either manually or with a computer, allowing the robot to crawl and slither.
The Harvard team showed the robot's flexibility by having it wriggle underneath a pane of glass that was three-quarters of an inch off the surface, equivalent to it squirming under a closed door. Of the 15 times the robot wormed under the glass pane, often it took less than a minute to do so.
Researchers were pleased that the robot did not break since it was constantly being inflated and deflated. However, researchers would like to improve the robot's speed.
One drawback is the robot is tethered to an external power source. Scientists would likely need to find an internal power source before it could be deployed in real-life situations.
The project was funded by the Pentagon's research department, and was recently detailed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Credit: Robert Shepard