Engineers in the US have created the world's first entirely soft autonomous robot, which contains no rigid electronics and is instead powered by chemical reactions. Aptly named Octobot, the octopus-like machine uses pneumatics to move around and has been created through 3D-printing by engineers at Harvard University in the US.

Soft robotics have long presented a challenge to scientists as they've previously needed internal batteries or a tethered control system to power them, limiting their compliance. Octobot on the other had is completely self-contained, meaning it doesn't need any external power source or rigid internal components.

Instead, the robot is powered by the movement of gas through channels in its limbs, created by a chemical reaction between a small amount hydrogen peroxide and platinum. This then flows through a soft, microfluidic circuit printed into the robot and makes it move.

Michael Wehner, a postdoctoral fellow in the Wood lab and co-first author of the paper, said in a statement: "Fuel sources for soft robots have always relied on some type of rigid components. The wonderful thing about hydrogen peroxide is that a simple reaction between the chemical and a catalyst – in this case platinum – allows us to replace rigid power sources."

Scientists believe soft robots will be more suitable for situations that require close interaction humans, particularly within the medical field. They could, for example, in future be used for carrying out minimally-invasive surgical procedures.

What are soft robotics?

Soft robotics is a relatively new field in robotic engineering that uses materials like silicon to create soft and flexible devices capable of behaving in a manner unlike traditional robots. Potential benefits include resilience, cost effectiveness and manoeuvrability.

In its current form Octobot's movements are limited to just moving its limbs, however its creators are now working on more complex designs that will be able to crawl, swim and interact with its surroundings.

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

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

You can read the full research paper, published in Nature magazine, here.