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Soft-Growing Robot Has Potential Industry Uses

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

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A new style of robot, resembling a snake or a vine, has recently been invented by mechanical engineers at Standford University, and some of its uses can aid professionals in the industrial and commercial sectors.


With a body made of polyethylene, the “soft growing robot” moves through inflation, unfurling in a similar way to an inside-out sock, to get to its destination. It’s driven by a battery-powered pump.

The robot’s casing is just 11 inches, but it can extend of up 236 feet, and can not only fit into places where a typical robot couldn’t go, it’s able to move upward—essentially becoming a free-standing structure by itself.

Researcher Elliot Hawkes told Popular Science that the design was inspired by plants.

“I remember watching an English ivy plant,” says Hawke, “over the course of months, grow around the corner of my bookshelf seeking the sunlight and thinking that in a certain, very slow way, it was going somewhere.”

The tube-like robot also has a camera on the front tip that acts like the human eye.


The team tested multiple prototypes in different situations, admitting that soft robots are harder to control than a standard robot.

In one instance, the robot traveled over flypaper, glue, nails and up a wall of ice to deliver a sensor (such as one that could test for carbon dioxide when rescuing a trapped person).

"It successfully completed this course even though it was punctured by the nails because the area that was punctured didn’t continue to move and, as a result, self-sealed by staying on top of the nail,” the university said.

Other demonstrations had the robot lift a heavy crate (which it was able to do through its inflation), squeeze under a door gap that was 10 percent of its diameter and spiral upward high enough to send out a radio signal.

“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 Laura Blumenschein, a graduate student in the lab and co-author of the team’s research paper that appeared in Science Robotics.

“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.”


“With enough pressure, it can even slip through a crack, loop over a pipe and then pull down on a valve, a kind of task that could save lives and spare rescue workers from risk during a gas leak,” Popular Science reported.

In addition to helping a person trapped in a tight space, there’s also potential for the robot to help in residential or commercial construction.

In another demonstration, the robot maneuvered through the space above a dropped ceiling while pulling a cable through its body, which the researchers say could provide a new method for wiring homes.

The team says it’s looking forward to developing other prototypes that differ in size and material that could offer solutions in other fields, such as medical procedures.


Tagged categories: Research and development; Robotics; Technology

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