A new generation of robots will have the ability to become alternately squishy and stiff, thanks to a phase-changing material developed by researchers at MIT.
The technology is reminiscent of the liquid-metal T-1000 in the movie Terminator 2, which MIT highlighted in an official announcement.
It's unlikely to prove quite so lethal, however, at this point. The material is essentially a springy foam core inside a coating of wax. Rigid at room temperature, the material can be heated by an embedded wire, melting the wax and allowing the foam to deform. In principle, this should allow robotic components to become pliable when necessary, and return to rigidity when cooled.
The wax coating, according to Professor Anette Hosoi, adds other useful properties to the material.
"This material is self-healing," she said in the announcement. "So if you push it too far and fracture the coating, you can heat it and then cool it, and the structure returns to its original configuration."
What's more, added Hosoi's former grad student, Nadia Cheng, it's both cheap and relatively simple to make.
"A lot of materials innovation can be very expensive, but in this case you could just buy really low-cost polyurethane foam and some wax from a craft store," she said.
The potential applications for the technology are varied. The main idea seems to be to develop small deformable surgical robots, taking advantage of the softer state to travel through the body without harming organs and tissues. However, Hosoi also raised the possibility of larger robots being used for search and rescue tasks, slipping through small openings to reach victims.