S u m m a r y :
A newly-developed robot resembles a vine, and grows like a plant! Its design has been documented in a paper published in the journal Science Robotics.
A Vine-Robot To Help Trapped Survivors
A soft robot that can grow, not like Inspector Gadget, but like an actual plant—such is what a team of mechanical engineers from Stanford University has designed. The purpose of the device, inspired from living organisms like the vine plant, fungi, and neurones, is to conduct search and rescue operations together with performing medical procedures. The long-term goal is to have an equipment that will be able to extend itself over long distances into rubbles of collapsed infrastructure to take images of what lies underneath for rescuers.
Growing Without Moving Whole Body
A proof of concept has been developed to demonstrate the basics of the soft, growing robot. Though based on living organisms, it does not, of course, mimick them entirely.
“Essentially, we’re trying to understand the fundamentals of this new approach to getting mobility or movement out of a mechanism,” says senior author Allison Okamura. “It’s very, very different from the way that animals or people get around the world.”
Using mobile prototypes that were made to move past obstacles, the researchers set out to find out what their robot can do. The robot comprises an infolded, soft tube that grows in one direction when its material (a thin plastic) everts with the tube becoming right-side-out at one end; the other end was bombarded with pressurised air or fluids. The design allows for the robot to grow without moving its body: its end could move while its body itself remained stationary.
“The body lengthens as the material extends from the end but the rest of the body doesn’t move,” says lead author 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.”
Plant-Robot Carries Heavy Stuffs
The robot accomplished many feats: it could grow through obstacles like flypaper, sticky glue, nails, and an ice wall. It managed to go beyond the obstacles to deliver a sensor that was to detect carbon dioxide (a gas that is produced by victims of calamities who happen to be trapped in closed environments). The robot completed its trip even when it was ruptured by the nails.
The vine-robot was also able to lift a crate weighing around 100 kilograms.
Mr Fantastic Robot!
Also, remember how Mister Fantastic Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four movie extended his hand under a door to open the knob from the other side?! This is basically what the robot can do too: it grew under a door gap, and turned onto itself to make a structure sending out a radio signal.
“The applications were focusing on are those where the robot moves through a difficult environment, where the features are unpredictable and there are unknown spaces,” says 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.”