ChemBot Technology: Smart Chemicals

Soft-bodied robots squeeze closer

The US defence agency DARPA decided last year that it needed “Chemical Robots” (ChemBots) that could change shape in order to squeeze through small gaps. It’s now chosen the people to provide them – US firm iRobot. The company makes the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner (video) and the ‘Packbot’ used for bomb disposal.

The DARPA programme manager overseeing the project gave a hint at what the robots could be used for:

“During military operations it can be important to gain covert access to denied or hostile space… We believe that a new class of soft, flexible, meso-scale mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their dimensions to perform various tasks will be quite valuable in many missions.”

But as we noted in a special report on DARPA’s 50 years of pioneering ideas – many of its projects have made most impact in civilian arenas.

According to the original proposal from DARPA, in just 2 years a prototype approximately the size of a softball – i.e. 10cm across – must achieve all this:

a) travel a distance of 5 meters at a speed of 0.25 meters/minute;
b) achieve a 10-fold reduction in its largest dimension; and
c) squeeze through a 1 cm opening of arbitrary geometry and reconstitute its original size and shape, in 15 seconds.

That’s quite a challenge – I wonder how they’ll do it? Perhaps a variant of this shape-changing self-rolling wheel could work. Although the version in the image below (full story here) looks very mechanical, the design could be made in soft materials.

Tom Simonite, online technology reporter

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