Starfish robot shimmies through tight spaces

Harvard University engineers have built a limbo-dancing robot that can squeeze under obstacles in its path for search and rescue missions.

The soft-bodied robot is loosely based on squid, starfish and worms, and could help find survivors after disasters like earthquakes, or penetrate tight spaces on the battlefield.

“These organisms, ones without internal skeletons, suggest designs that are simpler to make and are less expensive than conventional hard robots, and that may, in some respects, be more capable of complex motions and functions,” says the team.

The five-inch-long robot is built exclusively of soft elastomeric polymers – which are cheap, as well as flexible.

It has four limbs, which are controlled hydraulically by pumping in compressed air – either manually or though computer control – into a series of small chambers in its limbs and spine.

It can cover different types of surface, including gravel and even Jell-O, and crawl through gaps of just an inch or so. It has several different modes of gait, including slithering and crawling.

In demonstrations, it was able to shimmy under a suspended glass plate in less than a minute.

However, the device still needs an external tether to supply the compressed air. The team hopes to incorporate an on-board air source in future, as well as speed it up from its current 13 meters per hour.

There’s a video of it in action, here.