Forget the humanoid Asimo and Roomba, the roaming vacuum. The next generation of robots will be soft-bodied, providing more flexibility than their stiff-jointed cousins, according to researchers at Tufts University.

TheMedford, Mass.university launchedthe new initiative focused on the science and engineering of a new class of soft-bodied robots with the announcement of$730,000 in funding from the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles, Calif.

The new field will combine biology, bio-engineering and nanotechnology to create a flexible breed of robots capable of performing tasks requiring greater mobility, such as search and rescue missions or repair and maintenance during space exploration missions.

"Our overall goal is to develop systems and devices— soft-bodied robots— based on biological materials and on the adaptive mechanisms found in living cells, tissues and whole organisms," said co-director David Kaplan, a professor of biomedical engineering.

While Honda's Asimo robot is meant to resemble a humanoid, it is mademostly of stiff materials incapable of the kinds of flexible actions common in biology, said Kaplan's co-director,biology Prof. Barry Trimmer.

It is Trimmer's work in studying caterpillars that first provided insights into how to build a soft-bodied robot. The caterpillar is unique in that its fluid and flexible movements are controlled with a simple brain and without the use of joints. Kaplan's work has focused on engineering strong yet flexible fibres.

The two hope the new class of robots will be continuously deformable and capable of collapsing into small volumes. Their work will focus on control systems, bionic materials, robot design and construction, and the development of operating systems to run the robots.

Roboticists have long tried to emulate animal motions such as walking, but only recently has the idea of softer materials begun to play a role in robot design.

In 2005 researchers at the University of California Berkeley began work on a robot modelled after the octopus, which is capable of walking underwater on two of its arms despite having no joints in its limbs.