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This Soft-Bodied Swimming Robot Is Powered Entirely By Light

Scientists have just created a soft-bodied swimming robot that is powered solely by light. It could revolutionize water transportation, oceangoing robots and even surgical procedures. 


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  • picture oscibot underwater with light pointing to it
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    Via UCLA

    A team of materials scientists from the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering recently published a paper in Science Robotics, detailing their design for a new robot powered exclusively by light. The robot is called OsciBot and moves by - you guessed it - oscillating it's tail. 


  • gif of the cylinder experiment for the oscibot
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    Via Giphy

    So how does it work? The Oscibot is made from hydrogel, a soft material that swells when placed in water and responds to light. The robot is inspired by a natural phenomenon that many animals share, called phototaxis - movement toward or away from a light source. Because the Oscibot is powered by a source of constant light, there is no need for batteries or external power sources. 

    The researchers' first goal was to see whether they could get an object to move in an oscillating pattern using light. To test this, they build a 2 cm long flexible cylinder and attached it to the bottom of a tank. When pointing light directly at it, the cylinder bent as fast as 66 times per minute. Furthermore, by pointing the light at it from different direction, the cylinder could move left and right, up and down. They could also control the speed of the oscillation by adjusting the cylinder's length and thickness. 


  • gif of oscibot moving in water
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    Via IMG Flip

    Once the scientists understood how to create an oscillating motion, they then made a rectangle shaped robot with an underwater tail from hydrogel. When a beam of light from a laser hits a spot on the tail, it heats up. This causes that part of the Oscibot to eject some of it's water and shrink in volume, which moves the tail up. When it moves up, the tail creates a shadow that cools the section where the light made contact with the robot, and this causes the tail to descend. The pattern repeats, causing a flapping motion. 

    The researchers recorded the tail flapping 35 times a minute - or fast enough to move the robot 1.15 times it's body length. This is twice as fast as other robots that are powered by intermittent light. 


  • picture oscibot in tank
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    Before the Oscibot, oscillating robots relied on an intermittent energy input, like pulsing light an alternating electric current. But the Oscibot's method of harvesting energy is easily accessible in the natural environment and cheap to utilize. The researchers think that this is a step towards robots that are able to be powered entirely by the light in their environments, rather than using batteries and cables. 


  • picture of oscibot
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    Via Phys

    The future of the Oscibot looks promising. The model of the Oscibot could be built on a larger scale and used for underwater propellers or wind sails that use sunlight to steer; or at a microscopic size, they could be assist with precision surgeries. The possibilities are many - the beauty of the Oscibot, according to the study's lead author, is the interplay between the soft 'smart' material and the environmental light to enable self-regulated motion. 

    This kind of soft, smart, lightweight robot could transform the future of robotic technology. 

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