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Squishy Lego-like bricks emerge from scientists' robot lab

Flexible plastic bricks smoosh together like Lego, but could actually become building components for soft robots.

We could someday have soft robots that go together like a Lego kit. Video screenshots by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Even fully grown scientists can't resist the siren call of Lego. A group of researchers from Harvard University has developed a building block called Click-e-Bricks, inspired by the iconic plastic toy. These bricks, however, are very different from the hard plastic blocks Lego uses. Click-e-Bricks are stretchy, flexible, bendable, and even inflatable. They can be blown up like little balloons and then return to their original shape.

Click-e-Bricks are created by pouring flexible plastic into a mold generated by a 3D printer. The purpose behind the squishy bricks is that they can be used to build soft robots, "clicking" the components together to allow for flexible designs that can be easily modified or expanded as needed.

The researchers shared a video demonstraing how the bricks can be used to connect microfluidic channels to move liquids around between bricks. The fluids can be mixed or redirected just by realigning the bricks. Another experiment showcases using the bricks to hold an LED light and battery.

The same Harvard team has been hard at work on other soft robots, including a crawling and undulating tentacled creature funded by DARPA. These sort of robots are intriguing because they can potentially fit into tighter spaces, expand or contract as needed, and even heal themselves in case of damage.

The Click-e-Bricks approach opens up possibilities for soft robots that could re-configure themselves without the need of a person to click and unclick the bricks. While the bricks are currently confined to the realm of research and development, traditional Lego fans will no doubt pine for their own set of squishy building blocks. Just imagine how awesome it would be to have a "Star Wars" Lego Jabba the Hutt made from gelatinous plastic.

(Via New Scientist)