Soft, Deformable Robots Are A New Frontier In Robotics

Robot octopi are slithering into existence.

Quick, picture a robot. You’re probably thinking of a talking pile of tin cans, or maybe some hard-shelled Roomba-like object on wheels. But engineers are coming alive to the possibilities of robotics fashioned of flexible polymers, powered by pneumatics and electric currents, that move as delicately and flexibly as an octopus or a worm.


Harvard’s Whitesides Research Group has created a series of shape-shifters that can slither along a floor, maneuver through tiny openings, and pick up a flower without crushing it. Squishable robots like these could be cheaper to build and more resilient in industrial applications, mining, and exploration.

Researchers at North Carolina State University are using hydrogels, plumped up with water, and powering them with both electricity and chemical reactions. In the future these could be the basis of biocompatible robots that assist doctors during surgery or function with the human body as highly flexible prosthetics or even artificial muscles. They could help the disabled regain mobility, or augment the strength of, say, warehouse workers doing heavy lifting. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding research into soft robotics for both reconnaissance and prosthetics.

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.