Researchers and engineers are increasingly drawing inspiration from nature to create machines that are more bendable and versatile than those made of metal. Here are a couple examples of those breaking out of the traditional hard metallic and plastic mold.
The Flexible 'Gumby'-like Robot
Harvard scientists have built a new type of flexible robot that is limber enough to wiggle and worm through tight spaces.
The Harvard team, led by chemist George M. Whitesides, borrowed from squids, starfish and other animals without hard skeletons to fashion a small, four-legged rubber robot that calls to mind the clay animation character Gumby. This robot, powered forward by compressed air, would be useful in getting through cracks after a disaster like an earthquake or on rough terrain.
Watch the agile robot in motion:
"The unique ability for soft robots to deform allows them to go places that traditional rigid-body robots cannot," Matthew Walter, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an email.
The Harvard project, funded by the Pentagon's research arm, took two months to construct and is 5 inches long. Its four legs can be separately controlled by pumping air into the limbs, either manually or via computer. This gives the robot a range of motions including crawling and slithering.
There were drawbacks. The robot is tethered to an external power source and scientists need to find a way to integrate the source before it can be deployed in the real world.
The Giant, Rideable Ant-Roach
When you think about a robot, usually you think of something hard, metal and potentially heavy. This robot is the exact opposite: it's inflatable, made of fabric and only weighs 70 pounds, which is surprising for its huge size.
What's really amazing about Ant-Roach -- modeled off a cross between an ant-eater and cockroach -- is its strength to weight ratio. Even though it weighs less than 100 pounds, it can carry up to 1,000 on its back. Ant-Roach, created byOtherlab, shows that robots don't have to fit the hard, ridged mold that we may put them in, according to GeekOSystem.
Watch Ant-Roach take some steps:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/v/Y9dv24BqIZQ?version=3&hl=en_US expand=1]
Even though Ant-Roach is still a prototype, GeekOSystem envisions several uses for such technology, comparing it to the large recently launched Mars rover Curiosity, which will be lowered to the plant by "hovering rocket sled". Technology similar to Ant-Roach may someday make it possible to roll up and inflate large equipment in convenient areas. Not just that, but the maintenance for such a robot is simple and the material is safer for human interaction, compared to steel.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.