Robots. Hard, angular, able to crush pavement as easily as a they crush human skulls. Or are they? Outside of the movies, a rigid robot is as brittle as any other gadget, and will suffer the same damage if dropped. That’s why Harvard researchers have come up with an alternative, a “soft” robot that can take bumps and falls over and over without getting hurt.
And don’t worry about that lame name, “soft robot,” because this thing jumps, and when it jumps, the jumps are powered by explosions.
The 3-D printed robot carcass looks like you took the detritus from your kitchen’s bottom drawer and made an Apollo lunar lander. Its body is made up of several materials, hard and soft, laid down in a single print job. The different stiffnesses all do their own jobs: the lips of the downward-pointing “jet” bowl are floppy, to cushion impact, while the parts around the computer brain are rigid.
The robot needs such resilience because it gets around by jumping. That bowl at the bottom is the propulsion chamber, where butane and oxygen are mixed and then ignited to fire the robot into the air. It steers itself by first inflating balloons in its three legs to adjust its launch attitude before–POP!–the little robot leaps like a flea, jumping up to six times its own height.
“The wonderful thing about soft robots is that they lend themselves nicely to abuse,” said Harvard University researcher Nicholas Bartlett, the primary author of a paper describing the technology. “The robot’s stiffness gradient allows it to withstand the impact of dozens of landings and to survive the combustion event required for jumping.”
This prototype seems more aimed at proving resilience rather than exploring the practicalities of an explosion-powered robot. Then again, kangaroos get around just fine with their seemingly impractical leaps. Also, it’s impossible to trip the thing up, so it might be a great way to get small payloads of supplies into an otherwise inaccessible disaster zone.