Soft Robots

I’m fascinated by the so-called “chemical robots” program run by DARPA. Its purpose is to create “soft robots”: a “new class of soft, flexible, mesoscale mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their dimensions and perform various tasks.”

[Image: Video originally seen over at IEEE Spectrum].

These soft machines, DARPA suggests, can be materially realized using “gel-solid phase transitions, electro- and magneto-rheological materials, geometric transitions, and reversible chemical and/or particle association and dissociation.” The idea of a robot that travels via “particle disassociation”—that is, a blurry cloud of “mesoscale mobile objects” that temporarily coalesces into a functioning machine before dissolving again—seems particularly astonishing.

Watch the above video for just one example of a “chemical robot.”

So what would these machines be used for? As DARPA explains: “During military operations it can be important to gain covert access to denied or hostile space. Unmanned platforms such as mechanical robots are of limited effectiveness if the only available points of entry are small openings.”

This is what I imagine Eyal Weizman‘s alter-ego might invent if he went into the robotics business in collaboration with eXistenZ-era David Cronenberg.

I’m specifically reminded of Weizman’s amazing paper, “Lethal Theory” (it is well worth reading the PDF), in which he writes of “microtactical actions” used by the Israeli military as a means of exploring a new domination of the city. The Israeli Defense Force, Weizman writes, has begun strategically retraining itself, in a bid to explore a “ghostlike military fantasy world of boundless fluidity, in which the space of the city becomes as navigable as an ocean.” Soldiers, we read, can now become “so ‘saturated’ within [a city’s] fabric that very few would have been visible from an aerial perspective at any given moment.”

Furthermore, soldiers used none of the streets, roads, alleys, or courtyards that constitute the syntax of the city, and none of the external doors, internal stairwells, and windows that constitute the order of buildings, but rather moved horizontally through party walls, and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors.

This is referred to as “infestation.”

So what if you replaced the living human soldiers with swarms of “soft robots,” capable of squeezing themselves, roach-like, through even the smallest opening? As Weizman terrifyingly suggests later in the paper: “You will never even understand that which kills you.”

Or perhaps we could find a more civilian use, we might say, for these soft machines, and send tens of thousands of them—a storm of flexible swarm-organisms shifting their shapes and flocking—outfitted out with GPS and radar, into the earth, traveling downward via faultlines, where they can map the spheroidal puzzle of our planet.

(Thanks to Alex Trevi for the tip!)

6 thoughts on “Soft Robots”

  1. Earthquake (or other natural/non-natural disaster) rescue/exploration also seems like a decent non-violent application. Send a swarm down into a collapsed building, find survivors, and on the way assess the structure so to get better intel on how to pull them out. Maybe even pull down lines for food/water/IV drips/painkillers/anti-biotics.

  2. "The idea of a robot that travels via "particle disassociation"—that is, a blurry cloud of "mesoscale mobile objects" that temporarily coalesces into a functioning machine before dissolving again—seems particularly astonishing."

    This reminds me the Stanislaw Lem´s novel, "The Invincible".
    There robots evolved into nano-mechanisms that traveled as clouds.

  3. this is amazing. Ive seen ideas for robots before but this is a new thought and take on how to make them move. Many i have seen have been with wheels or with water. This is with air and a expandable skin like plastic. I dont know how to put it into words just how amazing this whole plan is with this experiment. Science is truly amazing.

  4. I'm so glad you end your posts with a list of positive ideas, because if you hadn't, this would simply be terrifying. But you're right, these are amazing tools and no more than tools.

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