I make robots that are soft and floppy. If you can change your shape, you can go anywhere—you can squeeze through small holes in a rubble field and navigate unstructured terrain like forests. The problem is that if you’re soft, you’re slow, because when you push against something, your body deforms rather than creating forward motion. So we looked to the caterpillar as a model.
Caterpillars have an interesting technique for moving quickly and powerfully: They contract their belly muscles, curl up, and become wheels. They can roll several body lengths within 100 milliseconds. We said, Let’s see if we could do that with a robot. Our GoQBot can inch around like a caterpillar, but it also has a coiled shape-memory-alloy wire running through it that shrinks in length when it’s heated. We warm it up through a tethered control, the wire shortens, the robot curls, and it rolls away quickly. Right now, the wire is our muscle. But the second stage—and we’re working on this now—is developing technology to grow robots out of organic materials. We want to find a way to grow insect muscles inside a robotic device and to fuel the muscles with sugar and fat.
Once you can build and control something that is soft and floppy, you could build robots that are environmentally friendly. Imagine a robot that you could potentially eat or set aside to decompose when you’re done with it.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.