Scientists have made a breakthrough in the field of robotics: a shapeshifting robot capable of switching between liquid and metallic states to navigate harsh environments without compromising strength.

Because they can be both soft and hard, small robots inspired by sea cucumbers can overcome the limitations of robots that are only one or the other, and therefore have the potential to provide greater utility. in areas such as electronics assembly and even medical applications. .

The researchers had the robots navigate obstacle courses, remove or deliver objects to a model human stomach, and even liquefy to escape a cage before reforming into its humanoid form. of origin.

“Giving robots the ability to switch between liquid and solid state gives them more functionality,” says engineer Chengfeng Pan from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in China.

The robot liquefies and reforms
Timelapse showing the robot’s daring prison escape. (Wang et al., Question2023)

There are many potential uses for small robots that can navigate places too small or convoluted for humans to handle with typical tools, from delicate repair work to targeted drug delivery. But hard materials aren’t the best for navigating confined spaces or tight angles, while soft, more flexible robots tend to be weak and harder to control.

To find a compromise, a team of researchers led by Pan and his colleague, Qingyuan Wang of Sun Yat-sen University in China, looked to nature for inspiration. Animals such as sea cucumbers can alter the stiffness of their tissues to improve carrying capacity and limit physical damage, while octopuses can alter the stiffness of their arms for camouflage, object manipulation, and locomotion. .

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To design a robot that could do something similar, the researchers needed a non-toxic material that could easily transition from a soft to a rigid state at room temperature. They turned to gallium, a soft metal that has a melting point of 29.76 degrees Celsius (85.57 degrees Fahrenheit) at standard pressure, a few degrees below the average human body temperature. You can melt gallium simply by holding it in your hand.

The researchers embedded a gallium matrix with magnetic particles, creating what they call a “magnetoactive solid-liquid phase transition machine.”

“Magnetic particles have two roles here,” says mechanical engineer Carmel Majidi of Carnegie Mellon University, one of the team’s lead authors on the paper.

“The first is that they make the material sensitive to an alternating magnetic field, so you can inductively heat the material and cause the phase change. But magnetic particles also give robots the mobility and the ability to move in response to the magnetic field.”

After testing to see if the transition from solid to liquid was reversible (it was), the researchers put their little robots through a range of tests. The robots could jump over small moats, climb obstacles, and even split apart to perform cooperative tasks by moving objects before recombining and resolidifying.

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They even had a small humanoid version – in the shape of a Lego minifigure – that melted to escape from a small prison cell, seeping through the bars and reforming on the other side in homage to a scene from the movie. Terminators 2.

Next, the team studied practical applications. They created a model of a human stomach, and instructed the robot to engulf and remove a small object it contained – a useful way, one imagines, of extracting swallowed batteries, for example – and then perform the reverse operation, delivering an object in the way the team hopes it might deliver medicine.

For circuit repair, robots could navigate and swoop down on circuits to act as a conductor and solder; and even act as a fastener, seeping into threaded screw sockets and solidifying, performing the function of a screw without anyone needing to fasten it in place.

For real world applications, the phase transition machine would need some tweaking. For example, because the human body is higher in melting point than pure gallium, a robot designed for biomedical purposes could have a gallium-based alloy matrix that would raise the melting point while maintaining functionality.

This, the researchers say, has yet to be studied in detail.

“Future work should further explore how these robots could be used in a biomedical context,” Majidi says.

“What we’re showing are just one-off demonstrations, proofs of concept, but a lot more study will be needed to dig deeper into how this might actually be used for drug delivery or to remove foreign objects.”

The research has been published in Question.

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