Engineering news

Octopus-like soft robot could lead to medical device for use inside the body

Joseph Flaig

Looks like a stick man, moves like an octopus... the 3D-printed gel device moves underwater (Credit: Daehoon Han/ Rutgers University-New Brunswick)
Looks like a stick man, moves like an octopus... the 3D-printed gel device moves underwater (Credit: Daehoon Han/ Rutgers University-New Brunswick)

An octopus-like soft robot prototype could lead to a multifunctional device for inspection, diagnosis and drug delivery within the body, one of its creators has said.

Built in the shape of a 10mm-tall stick man, the creation from engineers at Rutgers University in New Jersey is made of 3D-printed hydrogels, which are more than 70% water. When electricity is applied to the prototype, its limbs change size and shape, propelling it through salty water.

As a soft and flexible robot, the device could lead to octopus-like creations capable of working underwater without damage, said mechanical engineer and senior author Howon Lee.

Traditional two-dimensional manufacturing techniques such as cutting, moulding and lithography have limited research possibilities with electroactive hydrogels (EAH), Lee told Professional Engineering. He said his team’s use of 3D printing, on the other hand, helped create multidirectional actuators capable of complex actions such as gripping objects.

The work could lead to “a deployable multifunctional device for inspection, disease diagnostics and drug detection/delivery,” Lee told PE.  

“We believe that 3D printing of EAH with precise dimensional control could unlock otherwise untapped potential of EAH and may lead to various applications in soft robots, artificial muscles, and tissue engineering.”

Most other soft robot research involves devices with stretchy air chambers and inflation-based movement, Lee said.

He added: “They usually require tubing to supply the required air pressure and associated valves and control systems. Also, it is quite challenging to miniaturise these soft robots to micro-scale. Our 3D-printed hydrogel actuators are driven by material deformation, which is controlled by remotely applied electric field, allowing for untethered actuation.”

The team, which also involved an associate professor at Korea University in Seoul, is exploring “a few” practical applications, with underwater uses a particular interest. Further studies are needed to address issues including material strength, reliability and durability, Lee said.

A study was published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 

Read more related articles

Professional Engineering magazine

Current Issue: Issue 3, 2020

Issue 3 cover copy
  • How NMITE is reinventing engineering education
  • Engineering's mental health crisis
  •  Hitting the depths of all 5 oceans
  •  Storing energy at sea

    View all

Professional Engineering app

  • Industry features and content
  • Engineering and Institution news
  • News and features exclusive to app users

Download the Professional Engineering app

Professional Engineering newsletter

A weekly round-up of the most popular and topical stories featured on our website, so you won't miss anything

Subscribe to the Professional Engineering newsletter

Opt into your industry sector newsletter

Related articles