Soft Robots Look to New Environments

Communications of the ACM 

The Octobot is fabricated by combining soft lithography, molding, and 3D printing. In a laboratory at Yale University, a soft toy horse with prosthetic coverings around its foam-stuffed legs has taken its first tentative steps. Despite its stiff and not entirely coordinated gait, the toy demonstration may point the way toward helping space agencies put lighter, more versatile robots into space. Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, assistant professor at the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science, says she was wrestling with the problem of how to allow robots to handle a wider variety of jobs than current approaches, which often focus on performing a single function well, when the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) issued a request for novel robot designs based on lighter, plastic approaches. Rather than attempt to lift many single-task robots into orbit, the space agency wants a single reconfigurable machine to be able to handle different tasks and, occasionally, to act as prosthetics for human astronauts.