Scientists discover how to create shapeshifting robots

BATH, United Kingdom — “Terminator” fans look away, scientists say they have discovered how to create shapeshifting robots — let’s just hope they’re friendly.

The new study by physicists at the University of Bath found a way a coat “soft” robots in materials which allow them to move and change to fit specific needs. This breakthrough in the creation of what researchers call “active matter” could forever change the way humans build machines.

To better describe their invention, study authors say the surface of an ordinary soft material always changes back into a sphere. It’s a lot like how a droplet of water always shapes itself like a round bead — creating the smallest surface area possible.

shapeshifter robot
Active matter: Wrapping an elastic ball (orange) in a layer of tiny robots (blue) allows researchers to program shape and behavior. (Image credit: Jack Binysh)

Active matter, on the other hand, works against this tendency. For example, scientists can wrap a rubber ball in a layer of nano-robots programmed to work together to reform the ball into the shape of a star. Researchers believe active matter will lead to the creation of machines whose functions come “from the bottom up.”

More specifically, these robots would contain multiple active units that work together to determine the shape, movements, and functions that best complete certain tasks. This is much different from today’s generation of machines, which get their programming from a central controller — like a robotic arm in a factory. Therefore, active matter robots would function much in the same way human tissues do as they control the organs in our bodies.

What jobs could shape-shifting robots do?

The researchers say one thing these machines might be useful for is serving as a new generation of drug delivery capsules. By coating the surface of nanoparticles with active matter, these robots might help improve the way drugs interact with cells and deliver medicine to certain areas of the body.

“Active matter makes us look at the familiar rules of nature – rules like the fact that surface tension has to be positive – in a new light. Seeing what happens if we break these rules, and how we can harness the results, is an exciting place to be doing research,” says study first author Dr. Jack Binysh in a university release.

“This study is an important proof of concept and has many useful implications. For instance, future technology could produce soft robots that are far squishier and better at picking up and manipulating delicate materials,” adds corresponding author Dr. Anton Souslov.

During their experiments with a 3D soft solid experiencing active stress, the team found these stresses expand the material’s surface — causing it to change shape. Study authors also discovered that the shape the solid formed could be tailored by altering the material’s elastic properties.

The team is now designing specific robots, including soft arms and swimming robots, to examine how this principle works under real-world conditions.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

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