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article imageEssential Science: Meet the soft-robot that grows like a plant

By Tim Sandle     Jul 24, 2017 in Science
A new prototype soft robot has been designed, and it the researchers behind the development took inspiration from plants. The robot 'grows' in order to explore its environment.
Thinking of different ways to collect environmental data, Elliot Hawkes of the University of California in Santa Barbara took inspiration form the way plants and fungi branch out to explore their environments in search of nutrients (what are termed low friction penetration strategies). What would happen, Dr. Hawkes considered, if a robot could do a similar thing.
The output of this Eureka! moment was a robot with a mechanical body that lays inside a plastic tube reel. The reel is able to extend outwards through the forces derived from pressurized inflation. This is a method that exists in nature. The marine peanut worm (Sipunculus nudus), for instance is able to extends its appendage trough this action. The worm species is collected and sold as a model organism for various fields of science, as fish bait, or for human consumption.
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With the robot, the base of the machine is made up of plastic tubing that contains two compartments: an inflating side and another than enables changes to the extension direction. Here the researchers describe how these two components work: "pressurization of an inverted thin-walled vessel allows rapid and substantial lengthening of the tip of the robot body, and controlled asymmetric lengthening of the tip allows directional control."
Visual cues are provided via a camera sensor at the tip (together with other onboard sensing instruments to take note of environmental stimuli); this alerts the robot when an object is ahead, so that the direction of travel can be changed.
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The movement of the robot can be seen in the following video:
As the video shows the robot can extend much further than plants, currently up to 72 meters. The rate of growth is around 10 meters per second. This is important since, with current progress with robotics, navigating the environment through growth is proving challenging for artificial systems.
According to Science News, Dr. Hawkes successfully programmed the robot to form three-dimensional structures. These structures include wrapping around radio antenna, turning off a valve, navigating a maze, swimming through glue, acting as a fire extinguisher, squeezing through tight gaps, shimming through fly paper and slithering across a bed of nails.
These applications are not simply for scientific curiosity. The longer-term aim of the design is to aid business applications, such producing a robot to traverse constrained environments in order to take photographs. This could include areas too tight for people (such as on construction sites) or areas that are hazardous to human health, as with oil wells or with the nuclear industry.
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The robot has been described in detail in the journal Science Robotics. The research paper is titled "A soft robot that navigates its environment through growth."
Essential Science
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we looked at how the human microbiome is now being digitized in order to take advantage of the findings from the Human Microbiome Project and develop personalized medicine. The week before we looked at ways to make better and long-lasting batteries, using alternative energy technologies.
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