Researchers have been able to design soft robots by studying and mimicking the movement of living organisms existing in our environment. For instance, the movement of a caterpillar can be mimicked to design a robot that uses cycles of pressurization and depressurization to make it crawl. However, this time the design of soft robots is not inspired by nature, but rather by the mechanism of origami. Origami is the Japanese art of using slits and folding paper into decorative and intricate shapes.
Understanding the rigidity of robots, researchers at Harvard and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) aimed to develop robotic systems that would be self-powered without having any hard components attached to them. The untethered soft robots are 3D printed from a material known as liquid crystal elastomer that changes shape in response to a difference in temperature. The researchers designed a prototype called “Rollbot” which appeared to be a flat sheet of liquid crystal elastomer at first but would roll into a pentagonal wheel when placed on a hot surface. Due to contact with the hot surface, the hinges would fold one by one creating a constant cyclic motion. Once off the surface, it would automatically unroll itself as well.
These robots have the potential to be used in the medical field, especially in invasive surgeries due to their gentle and adaptive nature. Even though the research was only done considering temperature change, the material can also be programmed to respond to changes in pH, humidity and light levels making it an ideal material to be used in other fields as well. In the future, untethered soft robots can be used in distant environments like space where humans or conventional robots may not be able to survive.