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Question Your World: Can We Make Soft Robots?

A long time ago the notion of a robot was usually surrounded by sheer fiction and fantasy, then slowly we started to see robots in their early bulky shapes, and after many decades of technological growth we currently have highly accurate and durable robots that are commonly used in a myriad of industries. So, what's the next generation of robots going to be like? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.

The flying pigeon of Archytas? The digesting duck? What's the first robot? There are a lot of different answers depending on who you ask. Regardless of which one came first one thing is undeniable, we're becoming more and more reliant on technological applications like robots to continue our growth as a species. Robots today are used in nearly every industry. Machines designed to manufacture goods, perform surgery, fuel our largest vehicles, and many more uses are a result of many clever men and women that evoke their lives to robotics and technology. So, what's next?

Scientists at MIT have been working on something that could be the next step in robot evolution. In place of rigid durable materials they're opting to use a pretty creative new technique. 3-D printed wax and foam robots have been in the works at their labs and this stuff is pretty amazing! Very thin coils work as the support structure for this lattice shaped creation. The coils can be heated up which will take the waxy-foamy body to start to melt and physically change its shape.  Once the coils cool the structure goes back to its original shape, thus technically giving it the ability repair damaged parts thanks to this built in regenerative process.

These robots would be very useful in situations that involve slipping through small cracks or gaining access to areas that are very difficult for large solid objects. Rescue services, security reconnaissance, and even mind blowing applications like comfortably gliding through the human body are all potential applications for these new shape-shifting squishy robots.

What's more is that there is already talk of getting newer materials that are made to be fluid and controlled by electricity or magnetism. This could allow for robots that can change shapes by using various different electric or magnetic sources, perhaps even by remote signal someday. None the less, for right now this recent announcement is certainly a pretty amazing accomplishment in the advancement of robotics.  From the earliest mechanical creations to the latest malleable soft new robots the forward progression of robot evolution seems to be happening alright. So, to celebrate this news let's once again turn to the always entertaining and wonderful mix of robots and rock and roll. Exciting news!

Check out this NOVA’s Making Stuff video - all about a new generation of robots.

Article by: Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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