Robots come in all shapes in sizes, and a new soft robot that snakes its way towards the sky or around obstacles like a living vine is the creepiest yet.
Soft robots—meaning that they're made of flexible materials—are a promising area of research, since they can go places more conventional robots can't thanks to their malleable construction materials. They also don't need bulky accessories like a power supply. With movement styles often cribbed from nature, these robots can sidestep stubborn challenges for more traditional robots, made with steel and motors, in developing movement.
The vine robot, developed by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Stanford University, is able to extend itself up to 72 metres and wiggle through tight spots (including inside the human body) by pumping itself up with air from within and unfurling. Sensors at the tip allow it to autonomously "grow" in the direction of a specific target. Operators on the other end can follow the robot's journey with a camera placed on its leading end.
"Much like vines can transport nutrients along their length, you can imagine that a grown robot body could be used to deliver supplies and payloads or form a communication path," Laura Blumenschein, a Stanford roboticist and co-author of the paper, wrote me in an email. "Or, with different material choices, you could use the grown body as a structure itself, to provide supporting forces to the environment."
In a paper describing the work, published on Wednesday in Science Robotics, the researchers demonstrate the robot's ability to pull off stunts like navigate a maze and, pretty impressively one must admit, turn a valve located metres away from its starting point. It even managed to lift a crate weighing 70 kilograms. With all of those abilities, plus a camera, the researchers say it could be very useful in a search-and-rescue operation. Since the robot is also outfitted with a camera, the researchers believe that it could have medical applications such as guiding a catheter.
"At this size, you could imagine creating tools for surgeons that grow and follow natural pathways instead of having to be pushed into the body," Blumenschein wrote me. "This could help with procedures where right now it is difficult to get a tool in the desired position or there is a risk of damage from the tools currently in use."
Perhaps because of their more organic-looking vibe, soft robots tend to be a little unsettling—take this hand that looks like a bunch of dicks or this little bot that moves like a slug for example—and the vine robot may be the weirdest.
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