Researchers built a breakdancing, light-powered hydrogel robot

Magnetic fields are used to move the the sea creature-inspired device.

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Kris Holt
December 10, 2020 3:06 PM
Northwestern University's soft water-based robot
Northwestern University

Researchers at Northwestern University have created a dime-sized robot that looks like an animal you might find at the bottom of the sea. The soft robot is almost 90 percent water by weight. It has a hydrogel exterior while its nickel skeleton allows it to change shape. 

It doesn't use hydraulics or electricity to move around. Instead, the researchers used a chemical synthesis process to program molecules to respond to light. When the robot is exposed to light, the molecules can repel water. Its legs can then stiffen, shifting it from a flat position to a standing one. 

The robot can move at a typical human walking speed through the use of magnetic fields. It can pick up objects and hold them in place by folding its arms inwards. It can roll to move those items and even breakdance to shake off stickier objects.

Researchers suggest that future versions could work on a microscopic level. They say the robot could prove useful in a number of situations, such as removing unwanted particles in certain environments. It could also be designed to use "mechanical movements and locomotion to precisely deliver bio-therapeutics or cells to specific tissues." 

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