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Shapeshifting robots using a new material could be on horizon

A new material being researched could make shape-shifting robots real, but let's hope they aren't as violent as the Transformers from the movies.

Researchers have developed a flexible material that can stretch when heated and will allow robots to change shapes. The material, which can also be rigid, is a mix of elastomer foam with a soft metal alloy.

With the material, robots could become more versatile. Most robots are rigid, much like human skeletons, but by morphing into new shapes, they could be used for new tasks.

A more extreme scenario presented by Cornell University researchers envisioned flying drones that alter their wing shapes and transform into submarines.

Researchers say the shape-shifting technology could be part of a new field called soft robotics.

Researchers at Cornell University labs are still experimenting with the material, and there's no word on when it'll be ready for the real world. But the research plants the seed for others to consider the possibilities of flexible robots.

The material could have more uses beyond robotics, such as the development of prosthetics and other medical equipment, Rob Shepherd, a researcher and engineering professor at Cornell University, said in a video describing the material.

The material by design is stiff and rigid. It deforms when heated above 144 degrees Fahrenheit with a hot air gun. It returns its original shape and regains its rigidity after it cools. The material can stretch up to 600 percent. 

To create the material, researchers use a mold created from foam, using 3D printing, and dip it into molten metal. The metal alloy solidifies when placed in a vacuum and the air is pulled from the foam's pores. That process results in the flexible, soft material.

The research is funded by U.S. Air Force, the National Science Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. A paper on the technology will be published in the upcoming issue of Advanced Materials.

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