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DARPA Seeks Shape-Shifting War Robots

Developers can use several approaches, including shape-memory materials, reversible chemical or particle associations, geometric transitions, and new classes of materials.

Want to build chemical robots that can morph to change shapes and squeeze into spaces that appear smaller than the bots? Then the guys who invented the first Internet want to talk to you.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- DARPA -- recently issued a request for proposals for what they call ChemBots. The robots would be built to gain access to denied or hostile areas and give war fighters advantage in a broad range of military operations.

DARPA issued a statement saying robots provide attractive and effective means of gaining entry and it wants to develop soft, flexible, and mobile robots that can squeeze and traverse through small openings in buildings, walls, and under doors. It wants the robots to be large enough to carry an "operationally meaningful payload."

The robots must be able to travel, sense small openings, morph to get through them, and reconstitute size, shape, and functionality after doing so. They can be self-powered, self-consuming, or energy-scavenging. They can be autonomous or user-controlled, but they must not be tethered to controllers or power sources.

DARPA also specified that the robots must be robust enough to withstand a variety of temperatures, humidity levels, and precipitation.

"Nature provides many examples of ChemBot functionality," DARPA explained in the solicitation. "Many soft creatures, including mice, octopi, and insects, readily traverse openings barely larger than their largest 'hard' component."

Nature's examples also include worms, caterpillars, snails, and slugs, as well as other creatures that use musculoskeletal structures, elastic materials to twist and bend, DARPA explained.

The agency said developers can use several approaches, including shape-memory materials, reversible chemical or particle associations, geometric transitions, and new classes of materials or architectures.

There is still time to submit projects for consideration, but you'll have to work fast. White papers outlining the ChemBot's capabilities are due May 3, no later than 4 p.m. Eastern. The full proposals are due on July 2.

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