Octobot: Dawn of the Soft Robot


Through the work of the entertainment industry, robots are often portrayed as hard, unyielding machines, primarily capable of repetitive tasks unfavourable to humans. However, scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have been involved in the creation of a new kind of robot-  a soft, mobile creature created through 3D printing using Silicone. This creation, named the ‘Octobot’, is modelled on the movements observed in octopuses, with the autonomy enabled by the elongation and retraction of the tentacles, dictated by valves and switches to determine the movement of gases to each tentacle.

Octobot functions by the exploitation of a chemical reaction within the robot, whereby power is generated through a circuit containing Hydrogen peroxide and a solution with Platinum catalyst particles. When these two solutions are mixed the peroxide decomposes to release Oxygen gas, which inflates the ‘bladders’ of the robot to move the tentacles, causing a twitching movement. This is achieved by the simultaneous contraction of four tentacles during the expansion of the other four, creating a cycle of movement to propel the Octobot forwards, which continues until the fuel source is depleted.

With standard robots being primarily composed of carbon fibre, rechargeable batteries and copper wiring, the flexibility of such machines is in no way comparable to that of nature. The Octobot contains no rigid parts, and instead relies upon microfluidics by the manipulation of small volumes of fluid, to dictate the sequenced movement of the tentacles. This system enables the movement of oxygen around each of the limbs in turn, to produce a particular set of movements within the Octobot. This has many potential uses such as roles within the human body, or movement within small and complex areas which were previously unattainable by more rigid robots.

The Octobot currently functions for 4-8 minutes before refuelling is required, though this time frame is looking to be further improved by the development of more efficient microfluidics. With the basis of a soft and fully-autonomous robot achieved by these scientists, further developments to the concept are likely to have a massive impact on the potential of such technology. The team of ‘creationists’ are currently aiming to incorporate fluidic sensors to enable the Octobot to respond to its environment, hence marking a new era in robotics.