The capabilities of robots keeps growing and growing thanks to innovative minds across the world. In the past few years, scientists have taught robots to independently perform keyhole surgery, hike across unknown and uneven terrain faster than humans, and an oft forgotten challenge of all, the capability to open doors.
An imaginative paper, recently published in Science Advances, discusses a whole new way of thinking of robotics which could lead to the next generation of machines.
No ordinary material
The proposed idea from the team at the University of Bath, was to model the material on “active matter.” This fancy term means a system that can use energy to move, resulting in the ability to shape shifting.
For you to get an idea of how this works, imagine a small cover with tiny nano-robots. These robots could be programmed to work together and contort the ball into another predetermined shape, such as a star.
Working together in unison
This idea is pretty revolutionary, as normally a central controller sends signals to individual robots to control their activity, such as how a robotic arm works in a factory. Whereas for this shape shifting robot, the many units it’s composed of work in unison to have influence over each other’s actions. This is similar to how biological tissues work, with huge numbers of collaborating cells working at the same time to achieve the desired function, such as the heart.
Although this system is fundamental in nature, this is the first-time scientists are reimagining it for robotics, opening up whole new possibilities. The natural world seems to constantly be a source of inspiration to model new materials off. That’s because these complex systems already adhere to the laws of physics scientists have to abide by and have had millions of years to perfect their craft here on Earth. Some examples of these are a pathogen-repellent surface modeled off lotus leaves, ultra-strong glass inspired by mollusk shells, and floating fire ant colonies that could lead us to future adaptive materials.
The future of active matter robotics
Looking forward, scientists hope that robots may be able to control their shape, movement, and behavior thanks to this idea of active matter materials. This new generation of machines has potential applications in revolutionizing drug delivery methods to cells. Dr. Anton Souslov, author of the paper, also added: “This study is an important proof of concept and has many useful implications. For instance, future technology could produce soft robots that are far squishier and better at picking up and manipulating delicate materials.”
So far the team has managed to show proof of concept that their material could be possible, developing theory and simulations that support their argument. Next, the team has to apply their ideas to design specific robots and more deeply understand the properties of active solids.
Source study: Science Advances – Active elastocapillarity in soft solids with negative surface tension