Soft robotics are a branch of robotics that hopes to create more flexible and adaptable robotics for carrying out tasks that rigid chunks of metals cannot. Researchers from Harvard have created a number of agile and versatile soft robots that move like insects. The mechanism for these robots are really simple, and involve drinking straws and tendons made from small inflatable tubes, that either expand or contract the straws, similar to the limbs in animals.
The researchers were inspired by insects because their light weight and tiny form factor which allows them to move in unique ways, climb over obstacles, walk on water, and haul weights heavier than themselves. Robots inspired from these insects would be able to accomplish much more than conventional robots. The perfect way to realise this was the humble drinking straw. The researchers even managed to create a robot that walks on water.
The researchers started with simple robots, and then built increasingly complex ones. Alex Nemiroski, one of the researchers on the project says, "Eventually, when we graduated to six- or eight-legged arthrobots, making them walk became a challenge from a programming perspective. For example, we looked at the way ants and spiders sequence the motion of their limbs and then tried to figure out whether aspects of these motions were applicable to what we were doing or whether we’d need to develop our own type of walking tailored to these specific types of joints."
Although the versions created in the lab use cheap and low cost drinking straws, products made along the lines of the academic prototypes could potentially use lightweight structural polymer. Robots made with the polymer could bear more weight and strain, and be actually useful in real world applications. The research has been published in the journal Soft Robotics.