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8/20/2012
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DARPA Demos Inexpensive, Moldable Robots

Defense agency teams with Harvard on low-cost, silicone-based robots that can self-camouflage and navigate tough, narrow terrain.

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is enthused at the prospect of silicone-molded robots capable of camouflaging themselves to match their surroundings, for less than $100 each.

The agency has called attention to work being done by Harvard's department of chemistry and chemical biology and its Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering to demonstrate that "soft robots" can mimic living organisms' disguise capabilities. The research is being funded by DARPA's Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program.

"DARPA is developing a suite of robots that draw inspiration from the ingenuity and efficiency of nature," said Dr. Gill Pratt, director of M3, in a DARPA statement. "For defense applications, ingenuity and efficiency are not enough; robotic systems must also be cost effective. This novel robot is a significant advance towards achieving all three goals."

M3 focuses on improving the capabilities of robots by addressing the challenges of design, fabrication, and control, and developing prototypes to demonstrate new technologies. The soft robots were created using molds.

The scientists at Harvard and the Wyss Institute incorporated the camouflage capability by introducing narrow channels into the molds, which can be pumped full of air or fluids of different colors. The robots can change their contrast, shape, and temperature, or be made to glow through chemi-luminescence.

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Soft robots can also move by using the channels for pneumatic pressurization and inflation. A demonstration of movement and camouflage can be seen in this video.

"The primary takeaways from these soft robots are that even with the added color-change capability, the robot can still be produced using molds for less than $100, and because they are made of silicone, soft robots are resilient and can maneuver across rough terrain and through very constrained spaces," a DARPA spokesperson told InformationWeek in an email.

In addition to their potential military use, soft robots may have medical applications, according to DARPA. For example, they could simulate muscle motion for modeling or have use in prosthetics.

This demo is part of the same DARPA basic research program that is developing the Cheetah robot which earlier this year demonstrated its ability to run up to 18 miles per hour, setting a new land speed record for four-legged robots.

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