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A team of researchers has developed an integrated fabrication process that enables the design of soft robots on the millimeter scale with micrometer-scale features. To demonstrate the capabilities of their new technology, they created a robotic soft spider — inspired by the millimeter-sized colorful Australian peacock spider — from a single elastic material with body-shaping, motion, and color features.

A new fabrication process enables the creation of soft robots at the millimeter scale. (Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

In their Microfluidic Origami for Reconfigurable Pneumatic/ Hydraulic (MORPH) devices, the team first used a soft lithography technique to generate 12 layers of an elastic silicone that together constitute the soft spider's material basis. Each layer is precisely cut out of a mold with a laser-micromachining technique, and then bonded to the one below to create the rough 3D structure of the soft spider.

Key to transforming this intermediate structure into the final design is a preconceived network of hollow microfluidic channels that is integrated into individual layers. With a third technique known as injection induced self-folding, they pressurized one set of these integrated microfluidic channels with a curable resin from the outside.

The remaining set of integrated micro-fluidic channels were used as additional actuators to colorize the eyes and simulate the abdominal color patterns of the peacock spider species by flowing colored fluids and to induce walking-like movements in the leg structures.

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