A completely soft, multifunctional robot that travels large distances across the surface of water in a user- and environmentally-controlled manner

Unmet Need

Robotic technologies are continued to be invested in and adopted due to their ability to improve work efficiency, safety, and reduce costs. As robots are becoming more mainstream, there has been a growing interest to develop soft robotics that can offer solutions where rigid-bodied robots cannot. Compared to robots made from hard components, soft robots have the ability to carry out sophisticated and delicate tasks inside confined spaces and complex environments. Such robots could be deployed into the real world to aid humans with tasks such as environmental monitoring, exploration, and remediation, or detection and handling of biological and chemical entities. The current North American market for robotics that perform inspection and sample collections was estimated to be approximately $500 million and introducing soft robotic capabilities could expand this market. However, current soft robots are limited in their ability to sense, report, and achieve long-distance locomotion. There is a need for soft robots that can perform more complex functions.


DraBot is a dragonfly-inspired, entirely soft, multifunctional robot that combines long-term locomotion over water surface with sensing, responding, and adaptation capabilities. This is intended for applications such as oil spill cleanup and environmental monitoring. Long-distance locomotion is offered by an externalized propellant reservoir, and user control over the speed and direction of travel is made possible through a cascade of pneumatic and microfluidic logic gates. DraBot was designed to exhibit pH-driven control over locomotion by utilizing spatially confined pH-responsive self-healing features, which give the robot additional environmental sensing and adaptation capabilities. This could be leveraged to detect freshwater acidification, a serious environmental problem affecting several geologically sensitive regions. Additional features, namely temperature sensing and oil detection, are achieved through the incorporation of thermochromic pigments and hydrophobic structures with microarchitectures. Temperature sensing features can be used to identify changes in the surface temperature associated with red tide, bleaching of coral reefs, and the decline in marine life population. DraBot has been demonstrated to navigate hazardous acidic conditions, sense temperature perturbations, and detect and clean up oil.


  • Offers long-distance locomotion
  • Provides user control over the speed and direction of travel
  • Exhibits pH-driven control
  • Temperature sensing and oil detection capabilities
A video demonstrating the DraBot’s microporous PDMS structures absorbing oil from the skimming across the surface of water. Movie S12 from Hyun Ko, Yilong Zhou, Jiaul Hoque, Guarav Arya, Shyni Varghese, Dragonfly Inspired Smart Robot, bioRxiv, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.28.067033.

Duke File (IDF) Number



  • Varghese, Shyni "Shyni"
  • Ko, Unghyeon
  • Kumar, Vardhman "Vardhman"

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School of Medicine (SOM)