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Is this weird-looking soft-bodied robot an early version of the one that might one day help find people trapped in collapsed buildings?

Harvard roboticists are working on a soft, untethered robot that keeps operating through fire, water, crushing force and freezing conditions. So far, they have gotten the two-foot-long machine to operate without external power connections for two hours. 

To endure through the elements, the pliable body was made of a composite of silicone, fabric and hollow glass microspheres and contains no rigid structural elements. Along with surviving tough conditions, it successfully demonstrated an important ability—lifting the mini air compressors, compressed gas, valves, batteries and controller off the ground and moving with all the components it needs to be autonomous. 

"Robots intended for use outside of laboratory environments should be able to operate without the constraints of a tether," the engineers write in a report on their machine in the journal Soft Robotics. “This is especially true for robots intended to perform demanding tasks in challenging environments (for example, for search and rescue applications in unstable rubble).”

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Camera Robot Made For Disney Now Inspects Bridges

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by Michael Keller

Bridges are made to transport vehicles, not to make it easy for inspectors to do their job. That’s why inspecting the undersides and support pillars of tall ones is no easy task, either requiring people looking for problems to perform feats of contortion or the structure to go without review.

But infrastructure left without scrutiny is infrastructure bound to fail. In the case of the reinforced concrete that makes bridges, the test is a fairly straightforward one.

Inspectors use a device that checks for unseen corrosion within the concrete. The tool is an electrode attached to a wheel that detects big differences in electric potential within the material. This is a sign that corrosion—either from deicing salt that eats away the steel inside or atmospheric carbon dioxide that seeps in and changes the concrete’s chemistry—has set in and needs to be monitored. 

The question is just how to get to those hard-to-reach spots. Now engineers and roboticists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) have developed a solution. 

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Making Legs For Future Robotic Animal Assistants

University of South Florida computer engineer Luther Palmer is working on one of the big problems in robotics—creating legs that can move over all different types of terrain that a machine would find out in the real world. His team at the Biomorphic Robotics Lab is doing intensive computer modeling and taking tips from horses and humans on agile locomotion.

The team’s vision, like many other roboticists, is to imbue the best movement ideas developed through evolution into their machines. Palmer writes on his lab’s website that in the future, “robotic canines will gallop up stairs and over collapsed beams in burning buildings, locating occupants for rescue personnel.”

He also sees a time of robotic horses to carry heavy loads, cockroaches to conduct surreptitious surveillance and gophers to prepare alien worlds for human habitation. 

See the National Science Foundation video  and one for Palmer’s RecoRoach below.

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Robot Self-Assembles And Walks

by Michael Keller

Roboticists have developed a flat machine that can fold itself into an operational form and take a walk. 

Built mostly from paper and polystyrene plastic that shrinks into a memorized shape when heated, the robot can assemble in around four minutes. It can crawl at roughly 2 inches per second and make turns. The work by Harvard and MIT engineers represents the first time that a robot has self-assembled and performed a function without humans needing to intervene.  

“Here we created a full electromechanical system that was embedded into one flat sheet,” said Harvard Microrobotics Lab researcher and doctoral student Sam Felton. “Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there–they could take images, collect data and more.”

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