Harvard team creates tiny soft robot spider using new process

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A team of engineers from Harvard and Boston University has created a highly manoeuvrable tiny soft robot spider using an entirely new fabrication technique.

Known as MORPH (Microfluidic Origami for Reconfigurable Pneumatic/Hydraulic), the process uses soft-lithography to first create the robot shape entirely from silicone. Laser micro-machining is then used to etch tiny channels into the robot’s body. Using a technique called injection induced self-folding, some of these channels are then pressurised and cured using resin and UV light to form the final robot shape. Other microfluidic channels remain open so that the robot’s limbs can be actuated using water, coloured in this instance to mimic the appearance of the Australian peacock spider. The work is published in Advanced Materials.

“The smallest soft robotic systems still tend to be very simple, with usually only one degree of freedom, which means that they can only actuate one particular change in shape or type of movement,” said study co-author Sheila Russo, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Robert Wood’s group at Harvard’s Wyss Institute and the John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and currently Assistant Professor at Boston University. “By developing a new hybrid technology that merges three different fabrication techniques, we created a soft robotic spider made only of silicone rubber with 18 degrees of freedom, encompassing changes in structure, motion, and colour, and with tiny features in the micrometre range.”

soft robot
(Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

According to the researchers, this is the first time a flexible soft robot with this level of capability has been created on such a tiny scale. They believe the work has potential for surgical and biomedical applications, as well as in wearables.

“The MORPH approach could open up the field of soft robotics to researchers who are more focused on medical applications where the smaller sizes and flexibility of these robots could enable an entirely new approach to endoscopy and microsurgery,” said Donald Ingber, founder director of the Wyss Institute and Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS.