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Squishy Robots

July 30, 2014

Materials that can go from firm to squishy and back could make robots more versatile.



Robots with adjustable firmness. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Robots that shift from squishy to firm at will could be very useful in certain situations. For example, on a search-and-rescue mission, a robot might need to squeeze through tight spaces but also push aside heavy debris. Mechanical engineer Nadia Cheng is developing materials that could be used in robots like these. While a grad student at MIT, she and her colleagues combined foam scaffolds with a wax coating that’s rigid at room temperature.

NADIA CHENG (Empire Robotics; formerly MIT):

And so, if you heat up the composite, the wax could soften, and because the wax becomes the soft, and if the foam, or whatever scaffold is soft to begin with, then the whole composite would be soft.

Removing the heat made it firm again. The big challenge is figuring out how to control these states in an external environment. She’s now at a firm called Empire Robotics in Boston that’s testing several possibilities. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.