Shetland turbines at Bluemull Sound connected to grid

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Nova Innovation

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The blades of the turbines were made in Shetland

Turbines installed off the coast of Shetland could herald a “new era” in tidal energy, according to the company running the project.

Tidal energy specialist Nova Innovation said they were the first offshore tidal turbines in the world to deliver electricity to the grid.

Two 100kW turbines have been installed so far in the Shetland Tidal Array at Bluemull Sound.

The blades for the turbines were made by Shetland Composites.

Edinburgh-based Nova Innovation said tidal energy was a “long-term source” of predictable renewable power, with the turbines generating to full power across all tidal conditions.

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Nova Innovation

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Two turbines have been installed so far

Simon Forrest, managing director of Nova Innovation, said: “We are absolutely delighted to be the first company in the world to deploy a fully operational tidal array.”

Mr Forrest said the deployment of the second turbine showcased the technology.

The UK Carbon Trust estimates a £126bn global tidal energy market could be developed by 2050.

‘Huge promise’

WWF Scotland said the turbines were another “major milestone” on Scotland’s journey to becoming a “fully renewable nation”.

The charity’s director in Scotland, Lang Banks, added: “With some of the most powerful tides in Europe, Scotland is well placed to lead in developing this promising technology, which will help to cut climate emissions and create green jobs right across the country.”

Jenny Hogan, director of policy at Scottish Renewables, said: “Scotland is already at the forefront of capturing power from the tides and waves, and Nova’s latest news demonstrates that lead is well-deserved.

“The country is already home to some of the most advanced marine energy technologies anywhere, as well as the European Marine Energy Centre: arguably the most advanced marine energy proving site in the world.

“With companies like Nova and others all working on developing this cutting-edge technology, the sector holds huge promise for the future.”

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Early human ancestor Lucy ‘died falling out of a tree’

fossil specimen in scannerImage copyright
Marsha Miller, UT Austin

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The famous fossil was scanned during a break on a US museum tour

New evidence suggests that the famous fossilised human ancestor dubbed “Lucy” by scientists died falling from a great height – probably out of a tree.

CT scans have shown injuries to her bones similar to those suffered by modern humans in similar falls.

The 3.2 million-year-old hominin was found on a treed flood plain, making a branch her most likely final perch.

It bolsters the view that her species – Australopithecus afarensis – spent at least some of its life in the trees.


Air pollution ‘neglected for road safety’, researchers claim

A traffic jam on a motorway

Air pollution in UK cities has failed to improve because politicians prioritise road safety and economic growth instead, research suggests.

The research, to be presented to the Royal Geographical Society, says the issue of traffic pollution falls between the transport and environment departments, but is neglected by both.

It says ministers place cars at the centre of national transport policy.

The government said it is committed to improving the UK’s air quality.

The research is being presented at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference, which begins on Tuesday.

The authors, from the University of the West of England, say cars, buses and lorries are the main cause of air pollution in 95% of those cities in the UK where the air is classed unfit to breathe.

That pollution is estimated to shorten the lives of more than 50,000 people a year.

This is far higher than the number of deaths caused by traffic accidents (1,713 in 2013) – yet road safety is a much higher priority for planners than pollution, the researchers say.

‘Planning failure’

The report’s authors, Dr Tim Chatterton and Prof Graham Parkhurst, say this has strong implications for social equity because households in poorer areas tend to suffer more air pollution, while contributing less to the problem, because they are less likely to drive.

Prof Parkhurst said: “Air pollution is the grossest manifestation of a failure of UK transport planning to take the environmental impacts of transport choices sufficiently into account.

“Currently, air pollution is a shared priority between Defra and the Department for Transport, but shared priority does not mean equal priority. Transport policy and planning has instead prioritised safety and economic growth.”

The authors say the existing vehicle fleet is being replaced so slowly that reduced vehicle use is the only sure way to bring about changes in pollution levels.

They say this will mean a huge push to encourage walking and cycling – measures that would also help combat obesity.

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The report’s authors say more people should be encouraged to cycle and walk instead of drive

Dr Chatterton said: “Air pollution-related morbidity and mortality are at epidemic levels – and, although less obvious, are more significant than road transport collisions as a cause of death and injury.

“There needs to be a strong political and societal commitment to protecting public health, particularly the health of children, whose life chances can be seriously compromised by exposure to air pollution.

“This will require not just improvements to transport infrastructure, but also changes across society in our expectations of how we, and those we connect with, get around.”

The study included:

  • In-depth analysis of local authority approaches to managing air quality.
  • Evaluation of data collected by government as part of MoT tests.
  • Analysis of long term UK air quality data.
  • Analysis of studies undertaken for the Department of Transport into people’s attitudes and transport choices.

Road safety groups are likely to point out that although pollution harms young people, it tends to shorten the lives of those who are already ill or elderly.

Road deaths, on the other hand, are the principle direct cause of death for young people.

AA president Edmund King told BBC News: “Road transport is essential to keep the country running whether we like it or not, as 90% of freight and 85% of passenger journeys are by road.

“The ultimate aim is to keep the country running efficiently, safely and in a more environmentally friendly manner.

“Road vehicles are getting greener, cleaner and safer and government should do what they can to give incentives to speed up this process. Saving lives in road crashes won’t suggest it should.”

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Getty Images

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Campaigners say too much priority is given to saving car journey times

But Stephen Joseph from the Campaign for Better Transport said the research is a “wake up call” for local and Westminster politicians, as well as transport policy makers.

He said: “Transport computer models and assessments need to be reviewed too – currently they give far too much priority to small savings in journey times by car drivers, so anything that gets in the way of cars is treated as a cost.

“We see all round the country traffic planners and government agencies coming up with big road schemes, that will in practice add to air pollution rather than solving it.

“We need to change transport spending priorities to support alternatives to cars.”

A government spokesman said it was “firmly committed” to improving the UK’s air quality and cutting harmful emissions.

“That’s why we have committed more than £2bn to greener transport schemes since 2011 and set out a national plan to tackle pollution in our towns and cities,” the spokesman said.

“We have some of the safest roads in the world and are committed to making sure that record continues.”

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

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Nasa ends year-long Mars simulation on Hawaii

The exterior of the HI-SEAS habitat on the northern slope of Mauna Loa in HawaiiImage copyright

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The isolation experiments addressed the human element of exploration

A team of six people have completed a Mars simulation in Hawaii, where they lived in near isolation for a year.

Since 29 August 2015, the group lived in close quarters in a dome, without fresh air, fresh food or privacy.

Experts estimate that a human mission to the Red Planet could take between one and three years.

The Nasa-funded study run by the University of Hawaii is the longest of its kind since a Russian mission that lasted 520 days.

“The researchers are looking forward to getting in the ocean and eating fresh produce and other foods that weren’t available in the dome”, said Kim Binsted, principal investigator for the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation.

The team consisted of a French astro-biologist, a German physicist and four Americans – a pilot, an architect, a journalist and a soil scientist.

The experiment dealt with the human element of exploration.

Whilst conducting research, the six had to live with limited resources, wear a space-suit when outside the dome, and work to avoid personal conflicts.

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The location of the project was partly chosen for its remoteness

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The team members had almost no privacy during the mission

They each had a small sleeping cot and a desk inside their rooms. Provisions included powdered cheese and canned tuna.

Missions to the International Space Station normally only last six months.

Media captionThe Mars500 project locked six men in steel tubes for 18 months

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EU’s Sentinel satellites dissect Italian quake

InSAR Italy 2

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The specialised map will help scientists understand precisely what happened

Europe’s Sentinel radar satellites have mapped the ground movement in the Italian earthquake.

The data show subsidence of up to 23cm (9in) as a roughly 20km-long fault ruptured in the Apennine mountains in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Scientists will use the information to better understand what caused the magnitude-6.2 event and to make hazard assessments for the future.

Almost 300 people are now known to have died in the big tremor.

The worst affected town was Amatrice, but the settlements of Arquata, Accumoli and Pescara del Tronto were also badly hit.

The specialised picture displayed at the top of this page is what is known as an Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) map.

It is made by combining observations of the ground acquired by orbiting satellites “before” and “after” a quake.

The coloured bands, or fringes, represent movement towards or away from the spacecraft. In this case, each fringe is a step of 2.8cm.

“The InSAR data show that the earthquake has warped the Earth’s surface by a maximum of 23cm, causing subsidence in a 25km-long elongate region roughly between the towns of Norcia and Amatrice,” explained Dr Richard Walters from Durham University, UK, who built the map.

“The fault that ruptured was around 20km long. The average slip at depth on the fault was about half a metre, but is concentrated in two major patches, which probably means two separate fault segments ruptured together.

“Most slip took place at depth, with only a small amount reaching the surface.”

Dr Walters is affiliated to Britain’s NERC Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET).

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Artist’s impression: The Sentinel radar satellites offer a powerful capability for geophysicists

To make the map, he used radar data from the European Union’s Sentinel-1a and 1b satellites.

These spacecraft circle the globe, routinely imaging all land surfaces at least once every six days.

Their rapid return to any one location means they were in a position to view central Italy as soon as Friday after the quake, and then again on Saturday.

Dr Walters’ point about most of the slip being at depth illustrates the usefulness of InSAR.

Not all ruptures will show an obvious surface expression, such as a buckled road or a newly opened fissure in the ground.

But the InSAR data, in revealing the scale of warping, still permits scientists to trace the fault involved even if some of its sections are somewhat hidden.

This was true of 2009’s damaging quake in L’Aquila, to the south of Amatrice, which killed 309 people.

Surface breaks were small and geologists initially had some difficulty in identifying the fault responsible for the magnitude-6.3 event.

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Sentinels 1a and 1b are separated by 180 degrees and will map the entire Earth every six days

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Wood fuel plan to cut plane CO2 branded as ‘pipe dream’


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Isobutanol is more powerful than ethanol and has now been approved for use in aircraft fuel blends

Plans to cut airline CO2 using greener jet fuels made from waste wood have been dismissed as a “pipe dream” by environmentalists.

Several high octane, waste-based biofuels are being tested by airlines as a way of curbing CO2.

UN officials are set to endorse these fuels as a key part of global plans to stabilise aviation emissions by 2020.

But critics say the plans are unrealistic and airlines are not taking the issue seriously.

Contested airspace

One of the big failures of the Paris climate agreement, adopted in December 2015, is that it doesn’t cover emissions from shipping or aviation.


World’s largest marine reserve created off Hawaii

This photo provided by Bishop Museum and NOAA shows a wrasse, left, one of deep-water fishes never before seen by divers, found during a 25-day research expedition from May 22 to June 15, 2016,Image copyright

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New species of fish never before seen by divers were discovered in the monument in June

US President Barack Obama has expanded a national monument off Hawaii, creating the world’s largest marine reserve, the White House says.

His announcement on Friday quadruples in size a monument originally created by President George W Bush in 2006.

The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument will now span 1.5m sq km (582,578 sq miles), more than twice the size of Texas.

The designation bans commercial fishing and any new mining.

The White House says the expansion is helping to protect more than 7,000 species and improves an ecosystem dealing with ocean acidification and warming.

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The largest sponge ever documented was reportedly found at a depth of 2.1 km (7,000ft) in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

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A small deep-water fish, never seen before, in waters off the north-western Hawaiian Islands

A fact sheet previewing the announcement also states that the expanded area is considered a sacred place for Native Hawaiians.

The expansion was welcomed by environmental campaigners.

“By expanding the monument, President Obama has increased protections for one of the most biologically and culturally significant places on the planet,” said Joshua Reichert, an executive vice president at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Greenpeace also hailed what it called a “bold decision” that will ban commercial fishing and mineral extraction in the region.

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AP/The White House

But some fishing groups have voiced concerns.

“We are disappointed that the president has made a decision to close an area nearly the size of the entire state of Alaska without public process,” Sean Martin, the president of the Hawaii Longline Association told the Associated Press news agency.

“This action will forever prohibit American fishermen from accessing those American waters. Quite a legacy indeed,” he added.

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In 2014, President Obama extended the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which included the protected area around Palmyra atoll seen here

The area is also known for its many shipwrecks and downed aircraft from the Battle of Midway, which marked a major shift in World War Two.

President Obama, who was born in Hawaii, will travel to the Midway Atoll next week.

With this announcement, he will have created or expanded 26 national monuments during his time in office.

In 2014, he extended the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument south-west of Hawaii, which now covers 1.2m sq km (490,343 sq miles).

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Extinct ‘lion’ named after Attenborough

Artist's rendition of Microleo attenboroughiImage copyright
Peter Schouten

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Microleo attenboroughi was small enough to fit inside a handbag, according to Australian scientists

A miniature marsupial lion, extinct for at least 18 million years, has been named after Sir David Attenborough after its fossilised remains were found in a remote part of Australia.

Teeth and bone fragments from the kitten-sized predator, named Microleo attenboroughi, were found in limestone deposits at the Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil site in north-western Queensland.

The researchers named the new species after the British broadcasting legend because of his work promoting the famous fossil site, which provides a record of nearly 25 million years of Australia’s natural history.

When Microleo was still prowling around, in the early Miocene era (roughly 19 million years ago), the arid, outback ecosystem was a lush rainforest.

“It likely ran through the treetops, gobbling up birds, frogs, lizards and insects,” says Dr Anna Gillespie, a palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Dr Gillespie, who has been working at Riversleigh and preparing fossils for 20 years, helped recover fragments of the animal’s skull and several teeth.

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The relatively tiny tooth row of Microleo attenboroughi (top), compared with the tooth row of its Pleistocene relative, the lion-sized Thylacoleo carnifex

It’s far from a complete skeleton, but it’s an important part of the puzzle.”Crucially, we have got the third premolar, which is an elongated tooth that looks like a blade,” she told the BBC.

The razor-sharp tooth, used to tear up prey, is a common feature found in all known members of the family.

“It immediately tells us it’s a marsupial lion,” she says.

Pocket-sized predator

But the tooth is by far the smallest of its kind ever recovered.

It’s about one-tenth the size of the 3cm-long “bolt-crunching” teeth belonging to the largest and last surviving marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, which went extinct about 100,000 years ago.

Thylacoleo weighed about 130kg (286lbs) and was Australia’s largest carnivorous mammal. It was a fearsome predator about the size of an African lion, with the bite strength to match, and hunted megafauna such as giant kangaroo and diprotodon.

In sharp contrast, Dr Gillespie and her team estimate that their “little guy” weighed only 600g, and was about the size of a kitten.

“We weren’t expecting to find a marsupial lion of this small size,” she says. “It might have been a bit too big to fit in your pocket, but it would have fit quite comfortably in a handbag. It would have been very cute.”

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The Neville’s Garden site is renowned for the rich diversity of fossils that have been discovered there over many years

The team has ruled out the possibility that the fossils belonged to a juvenile, or a malformed member of a related species. This is due to their distinctive shape, the fact that all the molars have erupted and the presence of “very clear wear patterns”.

“This animal has been running around hunting things for quite a while. So it’s definitely an adult,” says Dr Gillespie.

The team from UNSW has described the new species in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

Unmatched diversity

With this find, the researchers have determined that at least three different marsupial lions were co-existing in the ancient Riversleigh rainforest.

“This level of diversity is unmatched for the family at any other time in their evolutionary history,” the researchers note.

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Getty Images

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Sir David Attenborough has long promoted Australia’s Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil site

One marsupial lion (Priscileo) weighed about 1.8kg, and was about the size of a cat. Another yet-to-be described species (Wakaleo) weighed around 30kg, about the size of a small Labrador dog, says Dr Gillespie.

She says it indicates that they may have been co-operating, dividing up the food resources to reduce competition between themselves.

The fossil was found in a location at Riversleigh known as Neville’s Garden, which has become renowned for its rich diversity of animals.

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Microleo was tiny compared to other members of the marsupial lion family, which included the enormous and fierce Thylacoleo

It’s yielded bandicoots, possums, kangaroos, toothed platypuses, small koalas, thousands of bats, fish, turtles, lizards, pythons and a range of rainforest birds.

“My colleagues have been working at Riversleigh for 40 years,” says Dr Gillespie.

“In that time we have processed tonnes of limestone, and got thousands and thousands of fossils back, but this is the only specimen from this animal.

“So it’s rather enigmatic in this way,” she says. “It might have been a rare species in that ecosystem, but we still have to hunt for more.”

‘Freakishly productive’

Stephen Wroe, an associate professor of zoology and palaeontology at the University of New England in NSW, who was not involved in the study, says the discovery raises new questions about the origin of the marsupial lion family.

“Until quite recently there were only a few marsupial lion species known. Over the last decade or two evidence from Riversleigh has seen this jump to 11 subspecies,” he says.

“This most recent find doesn’t just increase the known diversity in terms of species numbers – it greatly expands the diversity of known morphologies.”

Mr Wroe says the team has done a good job estimating the body size: “No matter how you wash it, this little guy was tiny relative to other members of the family.”

He says its diminutive size may explain why only a single specimen has been found.

“In general Australia’s fossil record is very poor over this time period,” he says. “Riversleigh is a freakishly productive area in this respect.”

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North Atlantic ‘weather bomb’ tremor measured in Japan

waves crashing on lighthouseImage copyright
Science Photo Library

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The same “weather bomb” brought violent weather to the north-west of the UK

Seismologists in Japan have tracked, for the first time, a particular type of tiny vibration that wobbled through the Earth from the Atlantic seafloor.

It was started by a “weather bomb”: the same low-pressure storm, off Greenland, which made UK headlines in late 2014.

Tiny tremors, of two types, constantly criss-cross the deep Earth from storms.

The slowest of these, the “S” wave, has never been traced to its source before and researchers say it opens up a new way to study the Earth’s hidden depths.

The findings appear in the journal Science.

Weather-triggered waves in the fabric of our planet, known as “microseisms”, happen whenever a storm at sea crashes waves together and those collisions send energy booming into the ocean floor.

The energy then spreads through the Earth as two very faint types of wave:

  • a pressure or “P” wave, with successive ripples of squeezing and expanding
  • a transverse or “S” wave, which travels slower and wobbles the rock from side to side

When an earthquake occurs, it radiates more violent versions of the same two waves. The P waves arrive first, and can be sensed by seismometers and some animals; the S waves arrive second and do the serious shaking.

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Science Photo Library

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Earthquakes and storms both trigger two types of disturbance in the Earth

In the case of microseisms, both signals are faint but P waves have been more straightforward to study. Typhoons in the western Pacific, for example, generate signals that are routinely picked up by scientists in California.

Key to finally picking up and pinpointing the more elusive S waves was deploying a big suite of detectors.

Kiwamu Nishida from the University of Tokyo and Ryota Takagi of Tohoku University used a network of 202 stations in the Chugoku region of southern Japan.

This high-density array allowed them to add up many measurements of the same very faint signals, and eventually trace their source all the way back to the north Atlantic.

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Kiwamu Nishida, Ryota Takagi

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Signals from the Atlantic were sensed by instruments buried in boreholes in Japan

Peter Bromirski, from the University of California San Diego, was not involved in the research but co-wrote a commentary on it in the same issue of Science.

He said that being able to detect both S and P waves from storms would open up more of the Earth to the prying ears of seismologists.

“Most of what we know about the internal structure of the Earth has been determined from studying the way earthquake waves propagate, through the lower crust and the mantle and the core,” Dr Bromirski told Science in Action on the BBC World Service.

“In order to do that, you need to have a source that can generate a signal that propagates to your seismic stations. For some reason there are very few earthquakes in the mid Pacific… so we don’t have any sources there.

“These storm-generated P and S wave microseisms will hopefully allow us to better characterise the structure of the Earth below the Pacific.”

How often do they get it right?

  • Forecasters have a chequered reputation, but do they deserve it?
  • Current five-day forecasts are as reliable as three-day ones from 20 years ago
  • Forecast accuracy varies with the season, and weather types

BBC iWonder: How often do forecasters actually get the UK weather right?

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Pneumatic octopus is first soft, solo robot

Media captionMeet the “octobot”: 7cm across and full of potential

US engineers have built the first ever self-contained, completely soft robot – in the shape of a small octopus.

Made from silicone gels of varying stiffness, the “octobot” is powered by a chemical reaction that pushes gas through chambers in its rubbery legs.

Because of this design, the robot does not need batteries or wires – and contains no rigid components at all.

Instead, a sequence of limb movements is pre-programmed into a sort of circuit board built from tiny pipes.

These movements aren’t good enough, yet, to send the octobot out for a stroll; instead it sits in one place and pumps alternating legs up and down in a very slow, eight-legged can-can.

But because that dance is powered purely by the robot’s internal pneumatic system, the Harvard researchers – writing in the journal Nature – say their system marks a key step forward for soft robotics.

“Many of the previous embodiments required tethers to external controllers or power sources,” said PhD student Ryan Truby from Harvard University.

“What we’ve tried to do is actually to replace these hardware components entirely and have a completely soft robotic system.”

The hope is that one day, soft robots will wiggle their way into awkward surgical locations or squeeze under obstacles on search-and-rescue missions.

Real-world tasks like these, particularly if they involve human interaction, are challenging or even impossible for conventional, rigid robots – which are much more comfortable in the structured, repetitive environment of the factory floor.

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R Truby/M Wehner/L Sanders/Harvard University

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Some of the prototypes were loaded with fluorescent dyes to show off their internal features

“Where everybody’s really excited to see soft robots come in is right at the human-robot interface,” Mr Truby told BBC News.

“Humans ourselves, we’re very soft… and soft robots are made of materials that are safe for us to interact with.”

The octopod is certainly pliable. It was made entirely from different types of silicone gel using a carefully devised combination of moulding and 3D printing.

‘We finally did it’

At its heart is a “fluidic logic circuit” where valves act as logic gates, allowing gas to flow and inflate compartments inside the eight separate limbs.

The gas is pumped into that circuit by a little fuel cell filled with hydrogen peroxide, which reacts with particles of platinum left in the system by the printing process.

All Mr Truby and his colleagues had to do – after several years perfecting the design – was to fill the robot with fuel and watch it go.

“We had all the components in place for quite a while, and it took many months trying to bring it all together,” he said.

“It was back, I guess last October, there was this one day when it just started working. Michael [Wehner, co-first author] and I looked at each other and thought: OK, we finally did it.

“Several iterations later, we kept fine tuning, and at one point we could just take these things out of the oven, fill them up with fuel and they’d start moving.”

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M Wehner et al./Nature

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A network of channels sits at the core of the robot (black bar is 2mm long)

The circuit sets up an alternating movement, whereby balloon-like chambers are inflated inside four limbs at a time.

The octobot raises four legs and lowers the other four, then swaps. It is a simple demonstration but an important one.

“Right now he’s kind of flopping back and forth, but it’d be nice to create soft robots that know when they’re interacting with their environment – that have more complicated modes of autonomous functionality,” Mr Truby said.

And why make the prototype an octopus? As a tribute, apparently. The animal is devoid of a skeleton but remarkably strong and capable of a baffling variety of movement – so has been a tremendous model for the soft robotics community.

“The octopus itself does not move this way, it is not powered this way,” Mr Truby explained.

“We’re not necessarily taking inspiration from the octopus itself, but we thought that for… our first embodiment of an entirely soft robot, it needed to have the form of an octopus.”

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R Truby/M Wehner/L Sanders/Harvard University

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The octobot: More of a tribute than a replica

Jonathan Rossiter, who runs the soft robotics group at the Bristol Robotics Lab, said the Harvard team had achieved something unique.

Researchers around the world, he said, have been working on the various components of an entirely soft robot: inflatable “muscles”, fuel cells, soft sensors and control systems.

“One thing that’s been missing so far has been putting them all together,” Prof Rossiter told the BBC, adding that the octobot would be a springboard for others in the field.

“It’s made in a really nice way. It’s made in a way that other people can look at and say, we could use these technologies ourselves – we can make ones that have better fuel systems, or have better control systems, or a more sophisticated body.

“This is a good demonstration of bringing everything together. That’s not easy, and they’ve done a good job.”

Follow Jonathan on Twitter

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© Warren Fyfe