The US Army is developing a hyper-flexible, ‘squid-like’ robot, to be used in reconnaissance in warzones. It is planned to be self-aware and highly adaptable.
Science fiction prefers to show robots as self-aware, hyper-intelligent humanoid constructs, that more frequently than not look to war with, or simply exterminate humankind.
Thankfully, so far the truth could not be farther from that dystopian image. For examples, the robots developed by Boston Dynamics are generally four-legged and are designed for tasks such as opening doors, carrying packages, or displaying their capabilities by climbing stairs and somersaulting.
Robotics researchers at the US Army are of the opinion that a rigid frame for a robot will only hinder it during maneuvers. They are intent on making a robot that is more flexible and agile, so they have turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: invertebrates, specifically cephalopods.
In a joint partnership with the University of Minnesota, The US Army Research Laboratory has announced plans for a different kind of robot. It is designed to be soft, and its lack of a solid frame means it is flexible on all points. The robot is intended to be used for covert operations, and maneuvers in highly contested areas where movement is restricted.
Read their announcement here: https://www.arl.army.mil/www/default.cfm?article=3197
Dr. Ed Habtour, a specialist in nonlinear structural dynamics, said that ‘structural flexibility’ is required for the type of maneuvers that the robot is designed to execute over a long period of time. It will also be able to mimic ‘biological morphologies,’ and adapt to changes in its environment.
A few other robotics laboratories have already constructed various flexible robots. For example, researchers at Harvard have made a six-inch long, X-shaped robot that crawls by flexing and extending its limbs and its torso. However, the robot designed by the US Army and University of Minnesota robotics experts will have to have more maneuverability in order to be used in hostile environments.
The US Army robot is designed to be entirely flexible and made from an especially developed material: dielectric elastomer actuator (DEA). This material conducts electricity and can be 3D-printed. Its elasticity allows it to bend in all directions upon receiving electrical stimuli.
Due to being constructed by 3D-printers, researchers state that specific training is not needed for the production of the robots. Lead author of the research paper, Ghazaleh Haghiashtiani also states that no additional steps are required after the printing, such as assembling or drying it. As such, large numbers of the robots could be made quickly, even in warzones.
The robots will be well-suited for surveillance, as they would be outfitted with cameras and audio equipment. They will be able to sneak in under doors and remain undetected for extended amounts of time.
The image might seem eerie, however, we are still some time away until these robots are fully ready for action. Its researchers have ambitious plans in store for them: the paper states that in the future, the robots will be self-aware and self-sensing, as well as able to change their bodies and properties to adjust to changes in their environments.