Now you can grow your own robot, according to a researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara. He believes he has come up with a way to grow robots from tubes. So, it might be a bit primitive now, but, one day, when you order sea monkeys out of comic books, you might actually grow real sea monkeys, or at least robot sea monkeys (which might actually be cooler than sea monkeys). What a time to be alive!
A growing robot
The basic idea behind this robot is straightforward. It’s a tube of soft material folded inside itself, like an inside-out sock, that grows in one direction when the material at the front of the tube everts, as the tube becomes right-side-out. In the prototypes, the material was a thin, cheap plastic and the robot body everted when the scientists pumped pressurized air into the stationary end. In other versions, fluid could replace the pressurized air.
What makes this robot design extremely useful is that the design results in movement of the tip without movement of the body.
“The body lengthens as the material extends from the end but the rest of the body doesn’t move,” explained Elliot Hawkes, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara and lead author of the paper. “The body can be stuck to the environment or jammed between rocks, but that doesn’t stop the robot because the tip can continue to progress as new material is added to the end.”
The group tested the benefits of this method for getting the robot from one place to another in several ways. It grew through an obstacle course, where it traveled over flypaper, sticky glue and nails and up an ice wall to deliver a sensor, which could potentially sense carbon dioxide produced by trapped survivors. 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.
In other demonstrations, the robot lifted a 100-kilogram crate, grew under a door gap that was 10 percent of its diameter and spiraled on itself to form a free-standing structure that then sent out a radio signal. The robot also maneuvered through the space above a dropped ceiling, which showed how it was able to navigate unknown obstacles as a robot like this might have to do in walls, under roads or inside pipes. Further, it pulled a cable through its body while growing above the dropped ceiling, offering a new method for routing wires in tight spaces.
A newly developed vine-like robot can grow across long distances without moving its whole body. It could prove useful in search and rescue operations and medical applications.