Operating like something you’d find at your neighborhood arcade, Engineers at MIT have fabricated transparent, gel-based robots that move when water is pumped in and out of them.
You’re not going to find these at your local Dave & Buster’s however. MIT’s robots are made entirely of hydrogel — a tough, rubbery, nearly transparent material that’s composed mostly of water. Each robot is an assemblage of hollow, precisely designed hydrogel structures, connected to rubbery tubes. When the researchers pump water into the hydrogel robots, the structures quickly inflate in orientations that enable the bots to curl up or stretch out.
The group, led by Xuanhe Zhao, associate professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at MIT, and graduate student Hyunwoo Yuk, is currently looking to adapt hydrogel robots for medical applications.
“Hydrogels are soft, wet, biocompatible, and can form more friendly interfaces with human organs,” Zhao says. “We are actively collaborating with medical groups to translate this system into soft manipulators such as hydrogel ‘hands,’ which could potentially apply more gentle manipulations to tissues and organs in surgical operations.”
Zhao and Yuk have published their results this week in the journal Nature Communications. Their co-authors include MIT graduate students Shaoting Lin and Chu Ma, postdoc Mahdi Takaffoli, and associate professor of mechanical engineering Nicholas X. Fang.
Testing several hydrogel robot designs, the team found the structures were able to withstand repeated use of up to 1,000 cycles without rupturing or tearing. They also found that each design, placed underwater against colored backgrounds, appeared almost entirely camouflaged. The group measured the acoustic and optical properties of the hydrogel robots, and found them to be nearly equal to that of water, unlike rubber and other commonly used materials in soft robotics.
In a striking demonstration of the technology, the team fabricated a hand-like robotic gripper and pumped water in and out of its “fingers” to make the hand open and close. The researchers submerged the gripper in a tank with a goldfish and showed that as the fish swam past, the gripper was strong and fast enough to close around the fish.
Next, the researchers plan to identify specific applications for hydrogel robotics, as well as tailor their recipes to particular uses. For example, medical applications might not require completely transparent structures, while other applications may need certain parts of a robot to be stiffer than others.
This research was supported, in part, by the Office of Naval Research, the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and the National Science Foundation.
Feature Image: Hyunwoo Yuk/MIT Soft Active Materials Lab