Researchers create soft, free-wheeling hybrid robot

A team of scientists created a new type of robot inspired by an octopus, and it could be a major breakthrough in the field.

Photo Source: Screenshot / Standford YouTube Channel
  • A team of Stanford researchers created a new type of soft robot that can morph into new shapes and freely move around like an octopus.
  • They call it an "isoperimetric robot": a human-safe soft robot that can grasp and manipulate objects as well as roll around in controllable directions.
  • It's possible that this kind of robot could be used in space travel in the future, because of its malleability and dynamic qualities.

Researchers at Stanford University have developed a revolutionary type of robot by combining features of traditional and soft robotics, making it safe, sturdy, dynamic and able to change form.

Their invention, detailed in a paper published last month in Science Robotics, is a breakthrough in soft robotics that overcomes previous limitations. For one, the new creation can morph into new shapes and (once inflated) can move around without needing to be attached to an energy source.

"A significant limitation of most soft robots is that they have to be attached to a bulky air compressor or plugged into a wall, which prevents them from moving," said Nathan Usevitch, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Stanford, in a Stanford news release. "So, we wondered: What if we kept the same amount of air within the robot all the time?"

Isoperimetric robotics

And so, an "isoperimetric robot" was born: a human-sized, human-safe soft robot that can change shape to grasp and manipulate objects as well as roll around in controllable directions. Flexible fabric tubes pumped full of air make up the robot's limbs, while tiny motors move through the tubes to move the robot and change its shape.

In its simplest version, the inflated tube runs through three small machines that cinch it into a triangle form. While one machine holds the two ends of the tube together, the other two move along the tube to morph the robot into new forms by moving its corners. The researchers call it an isoperimetric robot because while the shape changes, the total length of the edges (the amount of air inside the tubes) remains consistent. This new robot combines aspects from three other types of robots: soft robots (lightweight and malleable), truss robots (geometric forms that can shape-shift) and collective robots (small robots that work together), thus providing the benefits of each type while overcoming their limitations.

"We're basically manipulating a soft structure with traditional motors," said Sean Follmer, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and co-senior author of the paper.

By simply attaching several of those triangles together, the researchers are able to make a more complex version of the robot. They can make the robot perform certain actions by coordinating the movements of the differing motors. For example, picking up an object, like a ball, and moving it around. This kind of a task is more challenging for robots that use a gripper.

"A key understanding we developed was that to create motion with a large, soft pneumatic robot, you don't actually need to pump air in and out," said Elliot Hawkes, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara and co-senior author of the paper. "You can use the air you already have and just move it around with these simple motors; this method is more efficient and lets our robot move much more quickly."

Possible applications 

Soft robotics is a new field, and so it isn't entirely clear how these kinds of creations will best be utilized. It's been suggested that the safe texture and sturdy skeleton could make them applicable in homes and workplaces without the risk of injury. Soft robots could also be used in disaster response situations.

Some of the researchers are thinking even further out.

"This robot could be really useful for space exploration – especially because it can be transported in a small package and then operates untethered after it inflates," said Zachary Hammond, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Stanford and co-leading author of the paper. He thinks that the shape-shifting qualities of the robot could help it traverse the complex environments found on other planets. It could squeeze its way into snug spaces and splay out over obstacles, like an octopus.

Until then, the team is trying out different forms for the robot and exploring new types of soft robots.

"This research highlights the power of thinking about how to design and build robots in new ways," said Allison Okamura, professor of mechanical engineering and co-author of the paper. "The creativity of robot design is expanding with this type of system and that's something we'd really like to encourage in the robotics field."

Read their research in Science Robotics.

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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