Study: New process could help small robots reach tight spaces

Researchers have developed a process to build soft materials on a millimeter scale that may help small robots gain access to unreachable places inside the human body for medical procedures. 

Researchers with Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Boston University have developed an integrated fabrication process that allows for the design of soft robots with micrometer-scale features following a study, which was recently published in Advanced Materials.

“The smallest soft robotic systems still tend to be very simple, with usually only one degree of freedom, which means that they can only actuate one particular change in shape or type of movement,” study co-author Sheila Russo, PhD, said in a release. “By developing a new hybrid technology that merges three different fabrication techniques, we created a soft robotic spider made only of silicone rubber with 18 degrees of freedom, encompassing changes in structure, motion, and color, and with tiny features in the micrometer range."  

A network of microfluidic channels—or Microfluidic Origami for Reconfigurable Pneumatic/Hydraulic (MORPH) devices—allows the device to bend, harden and induce walking-like movements. Researchers believe the devices can help achieve similar complexity and functionality as rigid robots on a smaller scale. 

“In the realm of soft robotic devices, this new fabrication approach can pave the way towards achieving similar levels of complexity and functionality on this small scale as those exhibited by their rigid counterparts. In the future, it can also help us emulate and understand structure-function relationships in small animals much better than rigid robots can,” Robert Wood, PhD, said in the release.

Researchers had been unable to develop multifunctional, flexible robots that could move and operate on smaller scales. Wood said small, soft robotic systems are also typically simple with only one degree of freedom and can only perform one change in shape or type of movement.  

“The MORPH approach could open up the field of soft robotics to researchers who are more focused on medical applications where the smaller sizes and flexibility of these robots could enable an entirely new approach to endoscopy and microsurgery,” Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, MD, PhD, said in a release.