For the last 20 years or more the internet has rolled out “this is how Skynet/The Matrix starts” jokes every single time there’s a new advancement in robotics that makes the news. You can pretty much set your watch by it. And while it’s a bit of a tired old trope, people seem to enjoy it.
Realistically, however, we don’t need to wait for the robots to rise up. Thanks to soft robotics, robots are already far weirder than anything Arnold Schwarzenegger or Keanu Reeves ever had to deal with. Soft robotics is a sort of sub-genre of robotics where the machines are not made of stiff metals and plastic but soft, pliable materials that mimic flesh and muscle, although not always in the human sense. Some of what has been created under that banner is exceptionally weird.
10. Robo-Spider Corpses
In July 2022 the world got to experience the place where robots and zombism intersect when scientists turned dead spiders into robots. Strictly speaking, a soft robot can be designed to mimic biological functionality through the use of things like hydraulics and bladders. Pressurized tubes and hoses can act as limbs and actuators to make something move. As it happens, spiders kind of work the same way.
Spiders can move their limbs thanks to an internal hydraulic system. They don’t have nearly as many muscles as humans, but their blood pressure allows their limbs to move and contract. When the spider dies, its heart stops, and the bodies curl up as they lose pressure. This new experiment re-pressurizes the dead body. Scientists filled the corpse with air and that allowed the legs to spread and open again. As the air pressure is decreased, the legs begin to close. The end result is like one of those carnival claw machines that you use to try to win a stuffed toy, only this one is a corpse and it’s capable of lifting 130 percent of its own body weight.
So what’s the purpose? Technically, it’s cheaper than building a robot capable of the same task. And scientists feel like this branch of the darkly named necrobotics could have practical uses, including building and sorting and even sample harvesting in the field since spiders are already well camouflaged. Even if they’re dead.
9. MIT Built a Squishy Gel Hand That Can Catch a Fish
Robot hands are some of the oldest and most recognizable robots in the world. Not necessarily the titanium skeleton claw of the Terminator, but just robotic hands used for grasping in factory settings, often with just two or three fingers. Most of us have seen these and they are in use all over the world.
Historically, these robot hands have proven rather dangerous. Their grip strength is considerable no matter what they have been designed for. One robot designed to play chess broke the finger of a 7-year-old opponent. Soft robotics has developed a robot with a much gentler touch.
In much the same vein as the grippy necrospider bot, MIT scientists used hydrogel robots that are so gentle they can safely grab a fish while it’s swimming without causing harm. It’s like being hugged by a flabby-armed squid.
The hydrogel hand, which as the name implies is mostly water, is formed of pliant materials that are 3D printed to the needed size and shape. Water pumped into the fingers allows them to expand and stretch out, and then it can be opened and closed. Because it’s soft and water filled, it’s well suited to delicate tasks and the catching of the fish was sort of a proof of concept demonstration to show the robot is capable of delicate function.
8. Soft-Handed Fruit Picking Robots
Now, if you’re wondering what good a robot that can hold a fish can do, wonder no more. That realm of soft robots does have practical implications, and one of the developments that came from that idea of a very gentle robot is fruit picking.
Traditionally, fruit picking has been a human-controlled process. While machines are highly useful at harvesting many crops, some need a human touch because machines of the past were far too rough. Fruits like raspberries were far too delicate for a machine to pick. That’s no longer the case.
Ocado was demonstrating their robot hands back in 2017 that were gentle enough to pick up easily bruised items like raspberries or tomatoes. These would be used in the online grocer’s warehouse to pick customer orders. Air pressure governs the grip of the robot hand and, combined with AI, the robots could observe produce and determine ripeness and more as they pick orders.
Out in the field, a robot raspberry picker uses four arms, sensors and a gentle touch with soft plastic grippers to harvest about one kilogram of fruit an hour. That’s not a lot, but they’re hoping to have it quadrupled soon enough.
7. Starfish-Inspired Soft Robot Can Slither Under Doors
Starfish are interesting creatures, but there’s something intrinsically weird about them from a human perspective as well. The same can be said for many sea creatures. They all evolved in a world much different from our surface world, and so they seem a little alien to us, especially when we watch them move around. So it’s no surprise that a soft robot inspired by starfish is going to come across as extra weird, if not outright creepy.
Harvard designed a soft robot made of elastomers that moves thanks to air inflating its muscles. It can move using several gaits, from walking to slithering, and is also able to deflate itself and squeeze under doors or through cracks. Though the model Harvard demonstrated has to be hooked up to a hose system to control the flow of air, the potential for future advances that would see an autonomous soft robot able to fit into places a normal, rigid robot could never reach seem clear.
6. A Magnetic Tentacle Robot Can Be Guided Through Your Lungs
Let’s say you’re in the hospital because something is wrong with your lungs. Doctors need to get a better understanding of what’s happening, so what do they do? You’d probably expect a chest x-ray or something like that. But what if they decided to send a robot tentacle into your lungs to look around and see how things are doing? Researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK have developed one just for that purpose.
The magnetic tentacle robot, which seems to actually be the official name right now, is a soft-bodied robot made of interconnected cylinders. It can be magnetically guided through the lungs to take tissue samples or delivery therapy and medication.
If that sounds creepy, don’t worry. That’s literally how the lead researcher described it. “It’s creepy,” he said, while also acknowledging the plan was to find the least invasive way to explore the deepest and hardest to reach places of the human body. And since the end goal is actually saving lives, maybe a little creep-factor is a reasonable price to pay.
5. Robot Cockroaches Survive Being Crushed
You’d be hard pressed to find many people in the world who like cockroaches. They infest places and overwhelm them with their feces and corpses; they eat through wires, they can survive radiation exposure, and they are notoriously hard to kill. So a robot cockroach is just another layer of creepiness.
Fortunately for us, the robot cockroach at least doesn’t resemble a cockroach, not physically anyone. But it does retain the ability to survive even after someone tries to crush it. It can handle up to one million times its own weight coming down on it and still scuttle away after the fact. It’s also able to move very fast, covering 20 body lengths in just a second, another off putting cockroach trait.
The little critter is mostly formed of a piezoelectric panel. A current applied to it causes it to expand and contract, creating movement thanks to a layer of elastic polymer that causes it to bend and straighten again and a pair of tiny legs underneath. Future plans would add a gas sensor so it can creep into tiny places and detect dangerous fumes.
4. Stanford Researchers Made a Soft Robot Snake That Can Grow
Sot robots have a lot of potential when it comes to life saving. Take, for instance, search and rescue. A building collapses after an earthquake or explosion. Something like Stanford’s soft robot snake could immediately be sent in, writhing through the cracks and crevices, to find trapped survivors complete with a camera and even water for the victim. Rescuers would know immediately where to search to increase chances of saving lives.
You need to keep that upside in mind when you see just how creepy the robot snake is in real life, capable of literally growing and climbing over and through obstacles like the creeping tendril of a fast-moving vine. It grows out like a sock being unrolled and new material can keep being added. The base or start never needs to move as the rest of the robot continues to grow out.
3. A Magnetic Slime Robot That Could Retrieve Swallowed Objects
Magnetic putty was a popular pseudo-toy a few years back because it looked like slime that could move on its own. Turns out that inspired an idea for a new kind of soft robot that could potentially be used to tour a human gastrointestinal system and clean blockages. If a patient swallowed something dangerous – bits of metal or even watch batteries – the magnetic slime bot could make its way to the offending material and grab hold.
Because it’s magnetic, it can be manipulated into a variety of shapes and even guided through very narrow spaces. And, because of where it can be used and how it looks, the name “magnetic turd” was thrown out to describe it.
2. Xenobots Are Robots Made From Living Frog Cells
We already saw what happens when you make robots out of something dead, so how about something alive? Xenobots are robots that are made from living cells and, in this case, the cells of frogs.
Scientists have used frog stem cells to create tiny living robots capable of simple tasks. Skin cells and heart cells, which have no business working together, can push microscopic objects around. They even put themselves back together if they’re damaged.
There’s a hope that one day xenobots can be used in the medical field, and even out in the world to clean up contaminants in the environment. A future xenobot could take drugs right to the organs in your body that need them. They qualify as neither machine nor life form, or maybe they fall under the realm of both.
1. There’s a Robot Finger Covered in Living Skin
In science fiction, you can’t shake a tree without a robot designed to mimic a human falling out. From Data on Star Trek to the Terminator to Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, we really love the idea of making things in our own image. Also, it just makes for cheaper special effects if you cast a human and say it’s a robot. It was inevitable that real life would also walk down the humanoid robot path. And so far what we’ve come up with is off putting at best.
While there are a handful of rigid robots designed in the shape of a human, only soft robotics could get to the point where the words “slightly sweaty” come into play to describe how it looks. Japanese researchers have made a soft robot finger and covered it in skin. Real, living tissue.
Because the tissue is alive, the robot can heal itself from damage. The belief behind the design is that, if a robot is more lifelike, people will interact with it more easily. This could be crucial in healthcare settings or other situations in which someone needs to rely on a robot.
The skin has to be kept moist, so it doesn’t dry out since the finger isn’t attached to anything and there’s no circulatory system. They also acknowledged that it moves in a very mechanical way. No one broached the top of how it would look on a robot face, or what would happen if a skin-covered robot got some kind of infection and its face rotted off.
In the future, the plans are to build on the foundation by giving it a fingernail, sweat glands and hair follicles. Then, maybe someday, it’ll graduate to a full hand.