- A shape-shifting robot can liquefy itself and reform, allowing it to reach hard-to-access places.
- Scientists say it could eventually serve as a hands-free tool for extracting swallowed toxic items.
- Soft robots capable of navigating human bodies exist, but they can’t get stronger under pressure.
Although scientists have been developing magnetically controlled soft robots for years, this robot in particular quite literally oozes what some may describe as terrifying characteristics that would be a thrilling hallmark of an AI-dystopian movie involving the end of humankind.
The Lego-shaped robot can “melt” from solid to liquid and reform itself to squeeze in and out of tight spaces, perform tasks like soldering a circuit board and even escape cages.
In a new study published January 25 in the journal Matter, scientists showed the incredible strength of this phase-shifting property, which can be controlled remotely with a magnetic field. It’s made from a mixture of magnetic materials including neodymium, iron, and boron, and the liquid metal gallium.
Researchers took inspiration from nature. A graphic in the article depicts sea cucumbers, for instance, which can rapidly and reversibly change its stiffness.
Most existing materials for these robots are able to enter delicate spaces like the human body because they are stretchy — but, because they are also solid, unable to pass through the narrowest of spaces.
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Additionally, magnetic liquids are fluid but unable to carry heavy objects — unlike this robot which can make itself sturdier and stronger when under pressure or when carrying something heavier than itself, the study said. A solid robot, about 50 milligrams (or less than an ounce), is able to carry about 30 times its own weight.
Camille Fine is a trending visual producer on USA TODAY’s NOW team.