You’ve seen robotic dogs, humanoid robots that can do backflips, etc. – but have you seen the new shape-shifting robots? Just what the world needs, right? Well…maybe!
Do shape-shifting robots really exist?
They do exist, but they’re small – and they’re certainly not a threat. Although we don’t exactly love the headline from EurekAlert “Watch this person-shaped robot liquify and escape jail, all with the power of magnets.” But whatever. Like all robots, they’re pretty cool, aside from their (granted, far-fetched) potential to destroy us all.
This robot can indeed transform, liquefy itself, slip into the smallest crevices, and then reassemble with absolute precision. The shape-shifting robot creators drew inspiration from a sea cucumber.
What do a sea cucumber and a shape-shifting robot have in common?
Sea cucumbers have a unique ability—they can alter their stiffness rapidly and reversibly. This is the fascinating biological phenomenon that the researchers hoped to replicate in their robotic system.
Traditional robots, with their rigid bodies, lack the flexibility to navigate small spaces. There are “softer” robots, but while they’re more pliable, are often weaker and harder to control. So, to overcome these challenges, the team aimed to create a robot that could oscillate between being a solid and a liquid.
The new breed of robot is an alloy of gallium—a metal with a low melting point—and includes embedded magnetic particles. The particles allow the robot to respond to magnetic fields, which scientists can use to control its movement and induce changes in its state—from solid to liquid and vice versa.
The team from Carnegie Mellon University christened their groundbreaking creation the “magnetoactive solid-liquid phase transitional machine.” Catchy!
The power of transformation
In a magnetic field, the robot can jump, stretch, climb walls, and even solder a circuit board. Its most impressive trick? The ability to liquefy and squeeze itself out of a mock prison—only to solidify once again on the outside. When in solid state, this robot can bear weights 30 times its own, demonstrating remarkable strength and flexibility.
Interestingly, the shapeshifting robot might have potential applications in the medical field. In a proof-of-concept experiment, the robot successfully removed a ball from a model of a human stomach. It quickly moved to the ball, melted around it, reformed, and exited the model stomach—ball in tow.
Although gallium was the metal of choice in these experiments, other metals could be introduced to adjust the melting point for real-life applications.
Looking ahead, the gallium robots could serve a variety of purposes. From assembling and repairing hard-to-reach circuits to acting as a universal screw that melts and reforms to fit any socket, the possibilities seem endless.
The technology might have significant biomedical applications as well. For instance, these robots could deliver drugs inside a patient’s body or remove foreign objects. However, before any in-human application, tracking the robot’s position within a patient’s body is a hurdle scientists need to overcome.
Who knows, maybe a doctor will ask you to swallow a shape-shifting robot someday. What a thing to look forward to!
Wanna see the robot melt and reconstitute? Someone set it to some soothing music on YouTube: