This robot grows like a plant

robot in maze

A new soft robot takes inspiration from natural growers. In the lab, researchers tasked it with navigating a maze, as well as other challenges. 

E. Hawkes et al/Science Robotics 2017

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Robots are branching out. A new prototype soft robot takes inspiration from plants by growing to explore its environment.

Vines and some fungi extend from their tips to explore their surroundings. Elliot Hawkes of the University of California in Santa Barbara and his colleagues designed a bot that works on similar principles. Its mechanical body sits inside a plastic tube reel that extends through pressurized inflation, a method that some invertebrates like peanut worms (Sipunculus nudus) also use to extend their appendages. The plastic tubing has two compartments, and inflating one side or the other changes the extension direction. A camera sensor at the tip alerts the bot when it’s about to run into something.

In the lab, Hawkes and his colleagues programmed the robot to form 3-D structures such as a radio antenna, turn off a valve, navigate a maze, swim through glue, act as a fire extinguisher, squeeze through tight gaps, shimmy through fly paper and slither across a bed of nails. The soft bot can extend up to 72 meters, and unlike plants, it can grow at a speed of 10 meters per second, the team reports July 19 in Science Robotics. The design could serve as a model for building robots that can traverse constrained environments.

This isn’t the first robot to take inspiration from plants. One plantlike predecessor was a robot modeled on roots.

MAD SKILLS Researchers put a new extension-focused soft robot to the test in the lab. E. Hawkes et al/Science Robotics 2017

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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