Robot shapes up for rescue

A researcher at Virginia Tech College of Engineering in the US is creating a search-and-rescue robot based on the motion of single-cell organisms.

Dennis Hong, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, has a five-year, £200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

His Whole Skin Locomotion (WSL) mechanism works on the same principle as the pseudopod, or cytoplasmic ‘foot’, of the amoeba.

With its elongated cylindrical shape and expanding and contracting actuating rings, the WSL can turn itself inside out in a single continuous motion, mimicking the motion of the cytoplasmic tube an amoeba generates for propulsion. The mechanism, which uses all of its contact surfaces for traction, can squeeze through holes with diameters much smaller than its normal width.

‘This unique mobility makes WSL the ideal locomotion method for search-and-rescue robots that need to travel over or under rubble,’ said Hong. ‘The mechanism also has the potential for use in medical applications — such as robotic endoscopes, where a robot must manouevre in tight spaces.’

Hong is also the director of Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory where WSL actuation models will be analysed and prototypes built and tested.

He and his research students are also working on several other robot locomotion mechanisms, including Intelligent Mobility Platform with Active Spoke System (IMPASS), Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence (DARwin) and Self-Excited Tripedal Dynamic Experimental Robot (STriDER ).