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NASA Developing Soft Robots for Planetary Exploration


It’s a lot harder to squish a robot that’s already squishy.

As eager as we are to explore alien worlds, the fact of the matter is that we have no idea what to expect when we actually get there. We can infer a lot of things about a planet’s surface by observing from afar, but staring at a mountain through binoculars and actually standing on the mountain are two very different experiences. What we need is a tool that can adapt to any kind of environment. We need… a squishy robot?

Chuck Sullivan and Jack Fitzpatrick, two interns at NASA, are currently working on a new kind of soft robot to aid in the exploration of other planets. The work is still very early, not having gone any further than building limb actuators, but even that is surprisingly interesting. What they’ve got so far is a sort of silicon “bladder” with various pouches that selectively inflate when filled with air. By inflating in this manner, the actuator can tense, flex, and relax, not unlike a human muscle. This transformation offers a high level of adaptability. “When you actuate the soft robot, it changes how you use the material properties,” Fitzpatrick explained in a statement. “A piece of rubber going from flat to the shape of a finger, it changes the material into something else.”

If a robot with pure metal limbs were to fall over, then that’s usually game over. Something would break, or it would be in a compromising position it can’t move from. With these soft actuators, however, they could adapt their movement to almost any kind of terrain, be it hard, soft, rocky, or smooth. And since the soft material is malleable, it can weather sudden impacts better than a rigid structure.

It’ll be a while before they have a test model, to say nothing of being space worthy, but if these designs work, they could become the backbone of modern robotics. Or the back… muscles, I guess.