The Pentagon’s robo-blob has grown up a lot these past two years. Now, the thing’s got six legs and some seriously creepy crawling abilities.
In 2008, iRobot, the company behind household vacuum ‘bot “Roomba” teamed up with the Pentagon’s far-out research arm, Darpa, for a new program called “ChemBots.” The idea was to create a team of ‘bots whose movements were inspired by the locomotive talents of “mice, octopi and insects,” allowing them to slide under doors, squeeze into tight spaces or maneuver other tough-to-navigate terrain.
Already, Darpa-funded researchers have made remarkable progress. A team at Harvard last year unveiled a soft robot that could walk with different gaits, crawl, and deflate itself completely to cram into tiny gaps — on terrain as varied as pavement, mud, or, um, Jell-O.
And in 2009, iRobot and their collaborators at the University of Chicago introduced the first iteration of their robo-blob, which used new technology known as “jamming,” whereby a series of pressure changes inside a flexible polymer structure, which is filled with granular particles, make those particles either diffuse or “jam” together, creating a soft structure or a hard one. So as pressure changed inside the round, palm-sized ‘bot, it was able to roll on-demand.
Now, robo-blob has blossomed from that rotund, awkward baby-bot into a lean, mean six-legged walking machine. Researchers have affixed legs, made of that same elastic polymer, onto the robot’s body. Each leg uses the same jamming technology to alternately soften and harden, allowing the ‘bot to crawl — ever so creepily — into a terrorist’s nightmares.