Mechanical Engineers Develop Squishy Robots

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Robots Various Sizes

The robotics industry is constantly taking advantage of new technology and thus is constantly growing and evolving.  The robots of today are no longer these big clunky machines that are not only dangerous to operate, but also dangerous to be around in general.  In fact, robots now not only work side-by-side with humans, but also are used to effectively perform medical procedures on people.  While all these advancements are amazing, people in the industry are constantly searching for ways to move the field forward.  This week mechanical engineers at MIT created a new material made from polyurethane foam and wax, which may find application for “soft” robots.

New Squeezable Material

MIT mechanical engineering professor Anette Hosoi and her former graduate student, Nadia Cheng, alongside researchers at several different institutes and universities have developed a new material that could allow robots to “squeeze through small spaces and then regain their shape” (Thilmany, 2014).  This advancement would be a huge step for the robotics industry, which is constantly striving to reduce the size of robots, and make them able to get into hard-to-reach areas.

This new material creates many new possibilities for how robots could be used in the very near future.  In the past, metal, plastic, wood, or composites have been the primary materials used for constructing robots.  The one thing these all have in common is that while they are extremely tough and durable, they are only minimally flexible.  This new material “made from wax and foam is capable of switching between hard and soft states” (Thilmany, 2014).

In order to even start this process, the researchers needed to trouble-shoot how they were going to create a soft material that was still controllable (a necessity when working with robots).  They were able to accomplish this by “coating a foam structure with wax” (Thilmany, 2014).  As we all know, foam can be easily squeezed into small spaces making it the perfect candidate for such an ambitious task.  Foam also has the ability to bounce back to its original shape and size after been squeezed into tight spaces or shapes.  The benefit of using wax is that it has a relatively low melting point, and is easily cooled.  According to Hosoi, “running a wire along each of the coated foam struts and then applying a current can heat and soften the surrounding wax”.  Wax is and adaptable material.  If fracturing occurs, the wax can be reheated and then cooled, and the structure returns to its original form.  This provides some room for error without costing a fortune to repair what is already an expensive robot.

Building a Squishy Robot

The process of building this new “Squishy Robot” began when “researchers placed a polyurethane foam lattice in a bath of melted wax, they then squeezed the foam to encourage it to soak up the wax” (Thilmany, 2014).  The foam works similar to a sponge in that it can absorb liquids.  This still makes one wonder though how the wax remains inside the foam lattice after it has been heated.

This clearly was something that came up in their research because on the second version of the foam lattice a “3D printer was used to allow them to carefully control the position of each of the struts and pores” (Thilmany, 2014).  This made the printed lattice more controllable than the original polyurethane foam model, but it also increases the cost. While the first version works, the printed version has the ability to be modified and refined through test analysis.

What Will Squishy Robots Be Used For

With a robot that can squeeze into tight spaces and then regain its original shape, the possibilities of its use seem nearly endless.  I could see them being used by Police Departments to disable bombs, which would eliminate putting our officers in the line of fire. Another possibility that the engineers at MIT believe possible is having this “soft” robot used as a medical device to “move through the body to reach a particular point without damaging organs or blood vessels along the way” (Thilmany, 2014).  I can’t wait to see what role this new squishy robot plays in our future.


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