The Octobot Is Soft, Autonomous, and Stinkin’ Adorable

Ryan Truby, Michael Wehner, and Lori Sanders, Harvard University.
Ryan Truby, Michael Wehner, and Lori Sanders, Harvard University. / Ryan Truby, Michael Wehner, and Lori Sanders, Harvard University.

The robot uprising, when it comes, may be much cuter and squishier than previously imagined. Scientists have created the world’s first all-soft, completely autonomous robot: a translucent miniature octopus that glows in the dark. They described the project in the journal Nature. 

Inventors have been copying nature’s tricks for a long time. The hooks and loops of Velcro were inspired by a prickly thistle burr, while Japanese bullet trains borrow their shape from a kingfisher's streamlined bill. One of the most exciting frontiers in technology today is soft robotics, which attempts to repurpose the stretchy, squashy limbs and bodies of animals like octopuses, worms, and sea slugs. Effective soft robots could change the way we explore our planet, conduct search and rescue missions, and even administer medical care. 

But producing a successful squish has proven much harder than nature makes it look. Robots need power supplies and control mechanisms, which usually take the form of hard metal and plastic batteries and circuit boards.

To get around this issue, engineers at Harvard University turned to chemistry and 3D printing. Within the octobot’s translucent body are two fuel reservoirs filled with hydrogen peroxide. The reservoirs feed into small, thin channels that carry hydrogen peroxide to a liquid logic circuit filled with platinum-infused ink. The ink reacts with the hydrogen, thereby creating large quantities of gas, which then inflates the arms. The three systems—body, logic circuit, and power supply—work in tandem to get the octobot moving.

Take a look:

Precious and excellent though it may be, the octobot is not ready for prime time quite yet. "This research is a proof of concept," study co-first author Ryan Truby said in a statement. "We hope that our approach for creating autonomous soft robots inspires roboticists, material scientists and researchers focused on advanced manufacturing."

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