Soft robotics are becoming increasingly common as researchers and engineers develop new ways to fabricate robots from materials that range from flexible plastics to silicones. A team of engineers at MIT, however, has created a soft robot that, in a sense, is close to human in its composition, as it’s made almost entirely of water. The transparent hydrogel robots are really something to see – or not see, as they’re almost invisible underwater.
Each robot is composed of a series of hollow hydrogel structures connected to a series of rubbery tubes that allow the scientists to pump water into them. When the water is pumped in, they inflate and either stretch or curl up. The research team, led by Xuanhe Zhao, associate professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering, and graduate student Hyunwoo Yuk, created several of the robots in different configurations, including a fishlike robot that flaps back and forth like a fin, an articulated appendage that kicks, and a handlike robot that squeezes and relaxes.
While there are several potential applications for the robots, the team is currently looking to adapt them for medical purposes.
“Hydrogels are soft, wet, biocompatible, and can form more friendly interfaces with human organs,” said Zhao. “We are actively collaborating with medical groups to translate this system into soft manipulators such as hydrogel ‘hands,’ which could potentially apply more gentle manipulations to tissues and organs in surgical operations.”
View the full research article, Hydraulic Hydrogel Actuators and Robots Optically and Sonically Camouflaged in Water, http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms14230.