Shape-shifting robot squeezes onto military radar

iRobot today won a $3.3 million contract to build a shape-shifting, flexible robot for dangerous or hard to reach combat duties.

The robot is part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Chemical Robots (ChemBots) program that seeks to build soft, flexible, mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their static structural dimensions; reconstitute size, shape, and features while delivering a meaningful payloads or performing significant tasks, DARPA said. DARPA notes too that ChemBots represent the convergence of soft materials chemistry and robotics to create a fundamentally new class of soft meso-scale robots.

“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,” said, Mitchell Zakin, Ph.D., program manager at DARPA in a release. “We believe that a new class of soft, flexible, meso-scale mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their dimensions to perform various tasks will be quite valuable in many missions.”

DARPA goes on to say nature provides many examples of ChemBot features including mice, octopi, and insects, that readily traverse openings barely larger than their largest “hard” component, via a variety of reversible mechanisms. These mechanisms include (1) using elastic materials to twist, crumple, and bend with many degrees of freedom, (2) utilizing the flexibility of the musculoskeletal structure to squeeze through openings, and (3) exploiting reversible changes in modulus (i.e., flexible to stiff) to achieve dimensional reductions which can exceed 10:1. Soft invertebrates typically move by crawling,  peristalsis (earthworms, caterpillars), pedal waves (snails, slugs), cilial motions  and utilize means such as gripping, hooking, and suction to ensure sufficient traction with the terrain, DARPA said.

This ChemBots award is the latest in a series of DARPA project awards iRobot has won within the past 10 years. DARPA initially approached iRobot in 1998 to create the PackBot for its Tactical Mobile Robot program.

More recently, iRobot received an award under the DARPA LANdroids program to develop a new portable communications relay robot that is small, inexpensive, intelligent and robust. To date, iRobot has delivered more than 1,500 PackBot robots to a broad range of military and civilian customers worldwide, and continues to enhance this technology with its next-generation PackBot 510, iRobot said.

IRobot also makes the popular Roomba vacuuming robot and the iRobot Verro Pool Cleaning machine.

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