It’s no secret that many scientists and engineers envision a future where robots are used to perform key tasks and duties, and DARPA may be the organization that gets us there.
I’ll admit, designing and building robots isn’t easy. The technology is complex, design time scales are long and manufacturing costs are high. The good folks over at DARPA, seeing the potential of robots in assisting in the execution of military operations, have decided to do something about it. They have set up a program, the Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program, which is looking to create and demonstrate significant scientific and engineering advances in robotics.
Under this program, researchers have developed the silicone-based soft robot. This type of robot can be manufactured quickly and at a very low cost by using molds. This approach allows narrow channels to be introduced underneath the surface of the robot, into which various types of fluids can be pumped. These fluids can be used to make the robot move, as well as changing its color, temperature, contrast or shape.
The program manager for M3 said “DARPA is developing a suite of robots that draw inspiration from the ingenuity and efficiency of nature. For defense applications, ingenuity and efficiency are not enough—robotic systems must also be cost effective. This novel robot is a significant advance towards achieving all three goals.”
The robot shown in the video below was fabricated for less than $100. With further developments it in envisaged that this type of robot could one day cost just a couple of dollars.
In this video, you can see a soft robot walk from one surface to another. When on top of the brown rocks, the soft robot is filled with fluid to match the color of the rocks underneath and camouflage itself. Once filled with this fluid, the soft robot requires no power to maintain the color. The soft robots are hardly the fastest movers (this video is sped up by more than four times), however, they are designed for flexibility and resilience rather than speed.
Hopefully, the soft robots of the future will be used in a wide range of different fields. Alongside military uses, perhaps one of the most likely is in medical applications. Soft robots could be used for simulation, modelling and training, as well as in the development of prosthetic technology.