Weird robotics are well and truly here. A new shape-shifting robot has been gifted the ability to change its state from a solid to a liquid and back again, making it impossible to contain in, say, a prison. What could possibly go wrong there?
This little guy is made from what scientists engaged in a multi-university study are calling “magnetoactive solid-liquid phase transitional machine material”. More or less, this enables the little silver bandit to shape shift and escape whatever pathetic attempt of a jail it’s put in.
This is absolutely not unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Of course the whole “un-aliving people via the eyeball with a metallic spike made from its finger” is still a ways off yet. So at least there’s that.
Weird robotics: Metallic goodness
The goal isn’t to make these little guys into full-on metallic robocops, fortunately enough. Scientists behind the little bots claim they are going to be used to do all sorts of weird tasks, like removing foreign objects from human stomachs, or delivering drugs internally, or fixing tiny things inside huge machinery that is too much of a pain to pull apart.
The ability to alter the solidity of tissues was inspired by the study of sea cucumbers. These rather gross-looking sea slugs can alter how stiff their tissues are.
Boffins at work
Leading the study was Dr Chengfeng Pan, an engineer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Pan said, “Giving robots the ability to switch between liquid and solid states endows them with more functionality. Because traditional robots are hard-bodied but stiff, whereas soft robots are flexible but weak and their movements are difficult to control, the team created a new material called ‘magnetoactive solid-liquid phase transitional machine’ or MPTM.”
MPTM is made up from neodymium rare-earth magnetic particles inside in gallium. Gallium is a very strange metal that has a very low melting point of just 29.8°C.
Carmel Majidi, a Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, added, “The magnetic particles here have two roles. One is that they make the material responsive to an alternating magnetic field, so you can, through induction, heat up the material and cause the phase change. But the magnetic particles also give the robots mobility and the ability to move in response to the magnetic field.”
To break it down, MPTM can transform from a solid to a liquid state using only a magnetic field. It doesn’t require any external heat source. When it turns liquid, it becomes much more fluid than any other liquid, making it perfect for creating robots that can split and merge.
Once the magnetic field is removed, the MPTM material solidifies again, causing the robot join back together.
This technology has the potential to revolutionise the field of robotics. But for those who watched Terminator maybe one too many times, consider averting your eyes.