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

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.

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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Popcorn Might Be the Cheap, Biodegradable Robot Power Source of the Future
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If you've ever put a flat bag of kernels into the microwave and pulled out a full bag of fluffy popcorn two minutes later, you've witnessed a fascinating bit of food chemistry at work. Now, IEEE Spectrum reports that scientists are looking into applying the unique properties of popcorn to robotics.

For their study, presented at this year's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Cornell scientists stuffed the movable parts of a robot (a.k.a. the actuators) with unpopped kernels of corn. Usually actuators are powered by air, hydraulics, or electric currents, but as the researchers found, popcorn works as a cheap single-use alternative.

When heat is applied to popcorn kernels, the water trapped inside them turns to steam, creating enough pressure to peel back the tough exterior and release the starchy endosperm. A sudden drop in pressure causes the endosperm to quickly expand, while the cool outside air solidifies it.

The results can be dramatic: When popping extra small white kernels, the cheapest popcorn tested, researchers saw them expand to 15.7 times their original size. Inside a soft robot, this amounts to building interior pressure that moves the actuator one way or another.

A similar effect can be achieved using air, and unlike popcorn, air can be pumped more than once. But popcorn does offer some big advantages: Using popcorn and heat is cheaper than building air pumps, plus popcorn is biodegradable. For that reason, the researchers present it as an option for robots that are designed to be used once and decompose in the environments they're left in.

You can get an idea of how a popcorn-powered robot works in the video below.

[h/t IEEE Spectrum]

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Disney Parks May Soon Have Robotic Stunt People
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Animatronics are a staple of any Disney park, but as the company introduces more characters into the fold—like heroes from Star Wars, Marvel, and Avatar—the bar is being raised on audience expectations. On the screen, these characters defy gravity and pull off death-defying stunts, yet at the Disney parks, they’re still relying on fairly static animatronic models for their live shows and attractions. As Tech Crunch details, though, the gap between what the heroes do on film and in the park may be closing.

This development is all thanks to Disney’s R&D department, where Imagineers are working on next generation animatronics that can pull off aerial stunts like you’d see in any of the studio’s blockbuster films. The project is called Stuntronics, and its goal is to create animatronic stunt "heroes" that can replace a more static model in the middle of a Disney park show when the scene requires some high-energy action to take place. It's similar to the flesh and blood or CGI stunt people that movies have been using for decades.

In a video demonstrating their progress, a robot model is shown leaping from a cable to do backflips, double backflips, and other heroic landings. It’s something straight out of a Spider-Man movie and is years ahead of any animatronic character currently at the park.

Tony Dohi, principal R&D Imagineer at Disney, told Tech Crunch that the idea for this type of animatronic came about because they realized there was a “disconnect” between the exhibits at the park and what people see on film, so swapping in advanced animatronics for complex action scenes would go a long way toward making Disney’s parks feel more authentic to their properties. The Na’vi Shaman from the Avatar exhibit shows that Disney can get their animatronics to emote; this next step will put them into action.

According to Tech Crunch, right now the stunt robots are realized with the help of an “on-board accelerometer and gyroscope arrays supported by laser range finding.” They are autonomous and self-correct their aerial stunts to hit their marks. Though the model used in the video is just a generic mockup, it’s not hard to see how the Imagineers at Disney can easily turn it into any number of heroes from Marvel or Star Wars.

Stuntronics is just one of the advancements happening with robotics at Disney. Tech Crunch also detailed the Vyloo, which are a trio of autonomous bird-like robots in the park that react to guest movements. They can be seen in the Collector's Fortress in the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! attraction at Disneyland in California.

The Stuntronics project is still in the R&D phase with no practical application in place just yet. But if this technology does progress the way the Imagineers are hoping, the blockbuster action of Star Wars, Marvel, and The Incredibles won’t just be exclusive to the movies anymore.

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