Video of the week: Harvard robots built with plastic straws

Scientists at Harvard University have created a new class of soft robots, built with drinking straws and inspired by arthropod insects and spiders.

Known as Arthrobots, they were developed by noted Harvard Professor George Whiteside – a pioneer in soft robotics – and Alex Nemiroski, a former postdoctoral fellow in Whitesides’ Harvard lab. The fundamental mechanism at play is a simple joint, made by cutting a notch in a plastic straw. Limb movement is controlled by inflating short lengths of tubing in the straw, with a rubber tendon causing the joint to retract when the tubing deflates.

“This all started with an observation that George made, that polypropylene tubes have an excellent strength-to-weight ratio,” said Nemiroski. “That opened the door to creating something that has more structural support than purely soft robots have.”

“That was the building block, and then we took inspiration from arthropods to figure out how to make a joint and how to use the tubes as an exoskeleton. From there it was a question of how far can your imagination go?”

Although real world applications are a long way off, it’s hoped the robots might some day be used in conflict zones or for search & rescue following natural disasters.