The future of robots is wetter than expected. In a new demonstration released by engineers at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, a 3-D printed soft robot flopped about deliberately underwater, grabbed and pulled objects, and even walked. The range of applications for robots like this span every field from artificial organs to underwater inspections. Consider, for example, this little gripping arm:

This robot, which is 70 percent water, can grab objects when an electrical field is applied.
This robot, which is 70 percent water, can grab objects when an electrical field is applied.

Operating underwater, soft robots built on this research could collect evidence from lost vehicles, sift through contraband tossed overboard, and maybe at a larger scale even be used in demining operations.

Or consider, instead, the ability to pull an object inward, and imagine that capability inside the maw of a robotic fish. Discreet intelligence collection, hidden inside the mock bodies of artificial animals, could collect trash from the shores of artificial islands or follow in the wakes of coastal patrols. For a Navy looking at new ways to survey the sea, robots that can mimic animals offer a kind of stealth.

And then there is the walker. Look at this thing! Cartoonish, alien, and just an inch tall.

When manipulated by an electrical field, this soft robot lurches forwards.
When manipulated by an electrical field, this soft robot lurches forwards.

How’s it work? From Rutgers:


The speed of the smart gel’s movement is controlled by changing its dimensions (thin is faster than thick), and the gel bends or changes shape depending on the strength of the salty water solution and electric field. The gel resembles muscles that contract because it’s made of soft material, has more than 70 percent water and responds to electrical stimulation, [senior study author Howon] Lee said.

Walking is maybe not the most efficient way to move underwater but the form works, and if the body could carry a sensor, it’s not harm to imagine a larger version of the machine flopping onto shores after a release deep underwater, moist bodies flailing into position to provide some passive surveillance hours or even days before humans get there.

None of this is necessarily a direction the technology wants to go, but the potential is there, and as navies around the world look for new ways to perform their responsibilities, soft robots might join the growing legions of unmanned underwater machines.

Watch it in action below: