Stanford researchers develop a growing, soft robot that moves like a creeping plant

The new type of soft robot can potentially used for disaster response and medical purposes.

Vines, fungi and nerve cells have inspired a team of researchers to develop a new type of robot that uses growth for mobility. The robot is soft and flexible, and can adapt itself to navigate through obstacles that conventional robots find difficult to tackle. The researchers created a number of prototypes that can grow into freestanding structures, reach a designated goal, or move through various obstacles. The new type of soft robot can potentially used for disaster response and medical purposes.

The results of the research have been published in Science Robotics. Allison Okamura, senior author of the paper says, "Essentially, we’re trying to understand the fundamentals of this new approach to getting mobility or movement out of a mechanism. It’s very, very different from the way that animals or people get around the world."

The robot prototypes were made up of thin plastic tubes that were inflated with air, which can also be replaced with pumped water. A control system that can inflate only portions of the body of the robot, can be used to make it maneuver to the left or right. The robot could navigate through glue, pointed nails, up an icy wall to deliver a sensor that could be used to find out the carbon dioxide levels in a fire. In another demonstration, the robot grew under the gap of a door, and formed a free standing spiral structure which was used to broadcast a radio signal.

The robot can find its own way to navigate through cluttered environments, and one prototype was used to move through the wiring in a false ceiling. A camera can be mounted at the end of the robot, which can be used for search and rescue operations, and for controlling the movement of the robot. The robots can also be used to lift weights, and one prototype was used to lift a 100 kg crate.

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