Scientists build squishy, camouflaging robots with DARPA

Robots that glow in the dark could be used for search and rescue

Harvard University researchers have developed a squishy robot that can disguise itself or change its color to stand out from its background.

Those features, scientists say, could help surgeons plan complicated operations or aid search and rescue crews after disasters.

Researchers at Harvard University's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering developed this robot made of silicone. It can walk, change color and light up in the dark. It can even change temperature. (Video: Courtesy of DARPA)

The soft, silicone-based walking robots, first developed last year by a Harvard research team led by Professor George Whitesides, were inspired by creatures such as starfish and squid. Now they're using nature to inspire them again - this time to change the robots' color.

According to Harvard, which is working on the project with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, the scientists also are working to be able to change the robots' temperature, which would give them another form of camouflage - this time from heat vision.

The devices are not expensive. According to DARPA, the prototypes can be built for about $100 a piece.

"One of the most interesting questions in science is, 'Why do animals have the shape and color and capabilities that they do?' " Whitesides said in a statement. "These robots are test-beds for ideas about form and color and movement."

The Harvard scientists' work on the camouflaging robots involves creating molds using 3D printers, according to the university. Scientists then pour silicone into the molds to create micro-channels, which are then coated with another layer of silicone. Researchers were then able to pump colored liquids into the channels to change the robot's color, and fluorescent liquids could be used to make the robots glow in the dark.

"There is an enormous amount of spectral control we can exert with this system," said Stephen Morin, a postdoctoral fellow and a member of the research team. "We can design color layers with multiple channels, which can be activated independently. We've only begun to scratch the surface, I think, of what's possible."

Hot or cooled liquids can be pumped into the robot to change its temperature.

One use envisioned for the soft robots, is using them to simulate human blood vessels or muscle motion for realistic surgical training, according to DARPA.

Morin also said that he's hoping the robots could someday be used in search and rescue missions. The robot, for instance, could be illuminated in a dimly light area, to aid rescue teams in disaster areas.

There has been a lot of work going on in robotics, focusing on various shapes and designs.

In June, scientists at the University of California at Berkeley announced work to make robots more agile and maneuverable by studying the way cockroaches seemingly disappear.

Two years ago, MIT researchers announced that they used nanotechnology to develop a robot that could autonomously navigate across the surface of the ocean to clean up an oil spill. Scientists said they envision using a fleet of the machines, which they called a Seaswarm, to clean up oil spills more efficiently and cheaply.

Before that, a group of scientists in Norway reported that they were building snake-like robots that could be used to inspect and clean industrial pipe systems that are typically narrow and inaccessible to humans. The intelligent robots have multiple joints to enable them to twist vertically and climb up through pipe systems to locate leaks in water systems, inspect oil and gas pipelines and clean ventilation systems.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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