Design Engineering

Researchers develop an octopus-inspired 3D printed robot


Additive Manufacturing autonomous robot Harvard

A Harvard University team with expertise in 3D printing, mechanical engineering and microfluidics is hoping to revolutionize how humans interact with machines.

What is soft, untethered and completely autonomous? A team from Harvard University have developed a small, 3D printed robot named octobot.

Octobot soft robot

Photo courtesy of Lori Sanders.

The team, with expertise in 3D printing, mechanical engineering and microfluidics is hoping to revolutionize how humans interact with machines. However, the researchers have struggled to build entirely compliant robots up until now.

“One long-standing vision for the field of soft robotics has been to create robots that are entirely soft, but the struggle has always been in replacing rigid components like batteries and electronic controls with analogous soft systems and then putting it all together,” said Robert Wood, the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “This research demonstrates that we can easily manufacture the key components of a simple, entirely soft robot, which lays the foundation for more complex designs.”

Wood and  Jennifer A. Lewis, the Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) led the research.


The team was able to use a hybrid assembly approach by 3D printing each of the functional components required within the soft robot body, including fuel storage, power and actuation. The soft design was inspired by nature, in particular the octopus, which can perform incredible feats of strength and dexterity with no internal skeleton.

“The octobot is a simple embodiment designed to demonstrate our integrated design and additive fabrication strategy for embedding autonomous functionality,” explains Lewis.

The robot itself is pneumatic powered where a reaction inside the body transforms liquid fuel, in this case hydrogen peroxide, into a large amount of gas, which flows into the arms and inflates them like balloons. In order to control the reaction, the team used a microfluidic logic circuit based on pioneering work by co-author and chemist George Whitesides, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor and core faculty member of the Wyss.

“Fuel sources for soft robots have always relied on some type of rigid components,” said Michael Wehner, a postdoctoral fellow in the Wood lab and co-first author of the paper. Hydrogen peroxide provides a simple reaction between the chemical and a catalyst which allows the team to replace rigid power sources.

“The entire system is simple to fabricate, by combining three fabrication methods — soft lithography, molding and 3D printing — we can quickly manufacture these devices,” said Ryan Truby, a graduate student in the Lewis lab and co-first author of the paper.

The team has high hopes for the bot and intents to develop more complex designs, including a next-gen robot that can crawl, swim and interact with the environment.

“This research is a proof of concept,” saysTruby. “We hope that our approach for creating autonomous soft robots inspires roboticists, material scientists and researchers focused on advanced manufacturing,”


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