Engineers at Stanford University have developed a new type of soft robot that grows out like a cylindrical vine, and which has a huge range of potential applications.
It starts off as a tube of soft material folded in on itself, then extends as pneumatic pressure is applied. The direction can be controlled by varying the pressure, and the Stanford team has already developed algorithms to control movement based on images from a camera at the front of the robot.
What’s more, wires, sensors and liquids like water can be fed through the inside of the tube, opening up possibilities for medical procedures and search and rescue operations. In other experiments, the robot lifted a 100kg crate, grew under a door gap that was 10 per cent of its diameter and spiralled on itself to form a free-standing structure that acted as an antenna.
“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 at Stanford’s Okamura lab and co-author of the paper, which appears 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.”