Researchers Develop Soft Robot That Can Grow Itself

Posted: Jul 21 2017, 5:12pm CDT | by , Updated: Jul 21 2017, 5:24pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

Researchers Develop Robot That Can Grow Itself
Credit: Stanford University

Plant-inspired soft robot could be used in search and resuce missions

Researchers from Stanford University and UC Santa Barbara have created a new soft robot that can increase its length thousands of times and squeeze through the tightest of spaces. Inspired by fast-climbing vines, fungi or nerve cells, this robot could one day be used to save lives in search and rescue missions as it can crawl through the rubble after disaster and reach places that humans cannot.

"When you think about robots today, the majority of them are in the world of factories," said lead researcher and UCSB mechanical engineer Elliot Hawkes. "But there's a big push right now to see if we can create robots that could actually live and help out in the human world.”

The new robot works on the same principle as plants, growing in length from the tip and controlling its direction based on what it senses externally. However, the robot can do so at a faster speed. It can navigate its environment at a speed of 35 kilometers per hour and can extend up to 72 meters. The robot consists of a soft tube that is folded inside itself and expands through pressurized inflation. Its direction can be changed by controlling the airflow of its chambers.

“Pressure is the driving force," said Hawkes. “It helps these robots get through really constrained environments because there isn't any sliding.”

The most interesting aspect of the robot design is the independent movement of the tip that does not rely on the movement of the rest of the body. Unlike an inflating balloon, the pressure does not cause expansion throughout the body but rather extends its tip.

“The body lengthens as the material extends from the end but the rest of the body doesn't move," explained Elliot Hawkes. "The body can be stuck to the environment or jammed between rocks, but that doesn't stop the robot because the tip can continue to progress as new material is added to the end.”

In the lab, researchers demonstrated how the robot can be used in many ways. With a camera on its tip, researchers allowed the robot to run through some challenging tests and showed that it can easily move through different obstacles such as lifting a larger crate, sneaking through very small gaps, navigating a maze or swimming through glue.

“The applications we’re focusing on are those where the robot moves through a difficult environment, where the features are unpredictable and there are unknown spaces,” said co-author Laura Blumenschein. “If you can put a robot in these environments and it's unaffected by the obstacles while it's moving, you don't need to worry about it getting damaged or stuck as it explores.”

The robot is still in its very early stages but researchers are working to make the robot more functional in order to serve a wide range of purposes.

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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