Northwestern University researchers have developed a soft robot that is able to walk at human speed, pick up and transport cargo, climb up hills and much more.

The robot is activated by light and without using any complex hardware, walks in the direction of an external rotating magnetic field.

The research was published in the journal of Science Robotics. Samuel I. Stupp, Board of Trustees Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemistry, Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern, led the experimental research.

Postdoctoral fellow Chuang Li and graduate student Garrett Lau of the Stupp lab and Hang Yuan, a graduate student in the Olvera de la Cruz lab, are the primary authors of the paper “Fast and programmable locomotion of hydrogel-metal hybrids under light and magnetic fields”.

It is possible that the robot could be molecularly designed to recognize and remove unwanted particles in specific environments or to deliver bio-therapeutics or cells to specific tissues. This new research builds on Stupp’d previous work that was published earlier this year.

Stupp tweeted his motive behind developing this robot. His tweet reads, “Eventually, we’d like to make armies of microrobots that could perform a complicated task in a coordinated way.”

“The design of the new materials that imitate living creatures allows not only a faster response but also the performance of more sophisticated functions,” Stupp said.

“We can change the shape and add legs to the synthetic creatures, and give these life-like materials new walking gaits and smarter behaviors. This makes them highly versatile and amenable to different tasks.”

The robot’s water-filled structure and the embedded skeleton of aligned nickel filaments that are ferromagnetic in nature give the robot its precise movement and agility. The soft component responds to light or holds or expels the water in its interior due to its molecular design.

The team used chemical synthesis for the hydrogel to function, which becomes hydrophobic when exposed to light. This is what gives the robot its walking functions. When the light source is eliminated, it turns back to its original state, and the robot goes flat.

Both Stupp and Olvera de la Cruz believe that these soft robotic materials could be used to create objects meant for many applications, including chemical production, new tools for environmentally important technologies, or as smart biomaterials for highly advanced medicine.

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