Welcome to freaky Friday! Harvard engineers create first 3D-printed soft Octopus-like robot!

Octobot image courtesy of Nature.com.
Octobot image courtesy of Nature.com.

As a 215-lb. editor who’s always been deathly afraid of a 5-gram spider, this story freaked me out a bit. But it’s so cool that it’s worth sharing.

Octobot is the first autonomous, entirely soft robot. It was created by a team of Harvard University (Cambridge, MA) researchers – and it could eventually revolutionize the way that humans interact with machines! Until now, soft-body robots had to be hooked up to an off-board system or rigged with some hard components such as batteries and circuit boards. Robert Wood, Ph.D., and Jennifer Lewis, Sc.D., led the project. The Octobot is also described in the journal Nature, and it’s been very well received. According to the researchers, this has never been achieved before.

“One long-standing vision for the field of soft robotics has been to create robots that are entirely soft, but the struggle has always been in replacing rigid components like batteries and electronic controls with analogous soft systems and then putting it all together,” said Wood. “This research demonstrates that we can easily manufacture the key components of a simple, entirely soft robot, which lays the foundation for more complex designs.” Lewis added: “Through our hybrid assembly approach, we were able to 3D print each of the functional components required within the soft robot body – including the fuel storage, power and actuation – in a rapid manner. The Octobot is a simple embodiment designed to demonstrate our integrated design and additive fabrication strategy for embedding autonomous functionality.”

Image courtesy of Wyss Institute, Harvard University.
Image courtesy of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

How the Octobot works

Harvard’s Octobot is pneumatic-based (i.e. it’s powered by gas under pressure). A reaction inside it transforms a small amount of liquid fuel (hydrogen peroxide) into a large amount of gas, which flows into the Octobot’s arms and inflates them like a balloon. The reaction is controlled by a 3D-printed microfluidic logic circuit (described as a soft analogue of a simple electronic oscillator) that controls when hydrogen peroxide decomposes to gas. The cool thing about hydrogen peroxide is that a simple reaction between the chemical and a catalyst – in this case platinum – allows replacement of rigid power sources. The entire system combines three fabrication methods – soft lithography, moulding and 3D printing – which also facilitates quick manufacturing. Its creators hope their approach for creating autonomous soft robots inspires roboticists, material scientists and researchers focused on advanced manufacturing.

Finally, the team hopes to create an Octobot that can swim, crawl and interact with its environment. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Sorry, this is really creeping me out. I’m going to get my tropical fish x-rayed when I go home tonight. They’ve been acting strange lately).

Here’s a fascinating short video about its creation:







Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.