The practical implications include delicate internal surgery and search-and-rescue scenarios, both arenas wherein robots that could transform as needed would shine, according to engineers at MIT who have worked on the project with firm Boston Dynamics, DARPA's ChemBot program, the Max Planck Society and State University of New York at Stony Brook.
"The MIT approach … involves taking a material or structure that's inherently soft and modifying it with another material that can phase change between hard and soft states. In this case, MIT is using a scaffold made of foam that's been coated with wax," says Evan Ackerman of IEEE Spectrum. "…When the wax is cold and solid, the foam structure is rigid, but if the wax is heated to soften it, the entire foam structure becomes soft as well.
"The researchers also demonstrated that by selectively deforming parts of a structure, they could create joints and make the structure move using a cable...wax is one of the easier and safer materials to use for this purpose, although there are many other options, like liquid metals or…fluids that respond to magnetic and electrical fields."
Other observers, including Darrell Etherington of TechCrunch, have compared this cyber-versatility to that of the infamous T-1000 shapeshifting robot created by Skynet in Terminator 2: Judgement Day: "…the robots using this material heat the wax in their structure to make it malleable with current run through an embedded wire. This has the side benefit of also repairing any damage sustained to the structure while it’s in its hard state” as does T-1000 of the Terminator film franchise.
"It's not quite liquid metal, but the researches behind the project do suggest that the wax could be replaced by a stronger substance like solder in future versions."