Meet Octobot, a chemical reaction-powered soft robot

This dinky octopus isn’t your average sea creature.

It’s a bio-inspired soft robot — dubbed “Octobot” — that’s powered entirely by a chemical reaction.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers from Harvard University describe how a chemical reaction inside Octobot turns a small amount of hydrogen peroxide into a gas that flows through the robot’s arms, making them wiggle. A tiny circuit inside the robot controls when the hydrogen peroxide turns into a gas.

Wehner et al.3 have made an octopus-shaped robot that is constructed completely from soft materials. The body houses a liquid-fuel supply and a fluidic system that controls a cyclic pattern of leg movements. Actuators that cause the legs to lift are visible as purple rectangles in the legs. Scale bar, 10 mm. L. K. Sanders, R. Truby, M. Wehner, R. Wood & J. Lewis/Harvard Univ.

Wehner et al.3 have made an octopus-shaped robot that is constructed completely from soft materials. The body houses a liquid-fuel supply and a fluidic system that controls a cyclic pattern of leg movements. Actuators that cause the legs to lift are visible as purple rectangles in the legs. Scale bar, 10 mm. L. K. Sanders, R. Truby, M. Wehner, R. Wood & J. Lewis/Harvard Univ.

For the moment, Octobot is only a proof-of-concept design. But the engineers who created it hope it will pave the way for even wackier and complex soft robots that could, for example, help in search-and-rescue missions by squeezing into spaces where no human can go.

Building the perfect soft robot, however, is no easy feat.

Regular hard robots contain rigid components like batteries and electronic controls that promote efficient movement.

The challenge with soft robots, according to Robert Wood, a professor of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard University, is replacing these hard components with analogous soft systems that would still be capable of motoring the robot.

In the past, soft robots were tethered to an off-board system, but Octobot doesn’t need such life support to move.

“The wonderful thing about hydrogen peroxide is that a simple reaction between the chemical and a catalyst — in this case platinum — allows us to replace rigid power sources,” said Michael Wehner, a paper co-author, in a statement.

Octobot might not be able to demonstrate the pro-acrobat movements of a regular octopus just yet.

But next up, the researchers aim to create a soft robot that can swim and respond to its environment.