MIT has taken the first step towards creating shape-shifting robots

Robots tend to be either very rigid or very soft, but neither extreme is ideal; ideally, machines could both squish themselves into tight spaces and remain sturdy for strength-dependent tasks. They just might, thanks to a team-up between MIT and Google’s Boston Dynamics. The two have developed a composite material that can switch between hard and soft states on the fly. The design mates a compressible foam inside with an external wax coating. If a robot needed to deform, all it would have to do is soften the right joints with a bit of heating. It could even heal damage by heating and cooling an affected area.

Robots of the near future could resemble T-1000, rather than the early Arnold Schwarzenegger T-800 Model 101: A team at MIT has developed a phase-changing material built out of the decidedly unsexy components of wax and foam that can switch between hard and soft material states at will. Even low-cost robots could employ this material, too, so shape-changing could make its way into future robot vacuums as well as future robot assassins. The material is the work of mechanical engineering and applied mathematics professor Anette Hosoi, working with a team including her former graduate student Nadia Cheng and other researchers. It’s possibilities include use in the creation of invasive medical robots that can deform and change shape in order to navigate internal organs, vessels and intestinal pathways to perform delicate surgery. It could also eke its way through collapsed structures to locate survivors and help with search and rescue efforts, according to MIT news.

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