Soft, squishy octopus robot with built-in camouflage

Soft-bodied, camouflage robot
DARPA/Harvard University

(CBS News) If you think all robots have to be clanking, metal machines, think again. According to the Pentagon and Harvard University, the future of robotics may be soft and squishy. The two organizations have collaborated on a new generation of tiny robots that are cheap, soft and vaguely octopus-like. They also have built-in camouflage.

The Defense of Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) released a video showing a prototype of robotics' soft-bodied future. It is part of the agency's Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program, the goal of which is increasing the mobility of robots while also reducing their cost.

The robot in the video above is made of silicone and controlled via "microfluidic" channels that pump air and fluids into the machine's body to control movement and allow it to blend into its surroundings.

Per DARPA's description: "For this demonstration, the researchers used tethers to attach the control system and to pump pressurized gases and liquids into the robot. Tethered operation reduces the size and weight of such robots by leaving power sources and pumps off-board, but future prototypes could incorporate that equipment in a self-contained system."

The prototype is just one of 75 different soft-bodied models Harvard's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering are working on. Their hope is that, much like real animals, the fleet of robots will each serve their own purpose in a wide array of tasks.

The primary interest of DARPA is, of course, defense. But scientists at Harvard hope that cheap, soft robots could have applications far beyond warfare.

"Devices could be made to look, feel and 'act' like organs." Stephen Morin, one of Harvard's lead researchers on the project, told Talking Points Memo. "If a practicing surgeon cut into the wrong place the device would 'bleed.'"

As impressive as the octopus prototype above looks, the soft-bodied robot project is still in its infancy. The work has been going on for two years. "So we are relatively young", Morin said.