Researchers from Stanford University have developed a new type of robot that can cover distance by growing, just like vines, fungi and nerve cells.
The new robot is basically a tube of soft material that grows in one direction; its revolutionary design is what enables the movement of the tip without movement of the body.
According to the researchers, these robots can one day be used as rescue tools because they could easily slither through rubble in search and rescue operations and they could also be used as medical tools inside the human body.
“The body lengthens as the material extends from the end but the rest of the body doesn’t move,” says Elliot Hawkes, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara and lead author of the paper.
“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.”
Mr Hawkes claims that growth has many advantages over locomotion; a robot that relies on growth can easily manoeuvre through narrow spaces and form useful 3D structures, for one; further, soft robots such as this one are safer than hard, rigid robots not only because they are soft but also because they are often lightweight. Another great feature is its flexibility.
This robot can grow thousands of times its body length at speeds of up to 35km/h for short periods.
“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,” says Laura Blumenschein, a graduate student in the Okamura lab and co-author of the paper.
“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 prototype is powered through pneumatic air pressure; the researchers built it by hand. The hope is that in the future, these robots will come in different sizes and will be manufactured automatically.