A team of engineers from the University of Glasgow have developed robots inspired by the motion seen in inchworms and earthworms.
The ‘roboworms’ can stretch up to nine times their own length and are capable of a form of proprioception – the method by which biological organisms like worms perceive their position in space.
That ability, a first in the field of soft robotics, allows the robot worms to squeeze into tight spots. A feat previously not possible due the conventionally rigid nature of their robot counterparts.
The breakthrough could have applications in mining, construction or disaster relief as the new robots are capable of exploring difficult to reach places.
Applications for the technology also includes the development of more life-like prosthetics, or equipping robots with the ability to wrap around and lift irregularly-shaped heavy objects.
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The development builds on previous research from the University of Glasgow’s Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) group, which has found novel ways to embed flexible electronics into deformable surfaces.
That expertise has allowed them to build intrinsic strain sensors into the wormlike robots, which are around 4.5 centimetres long. They are covered in ‘skin’ made from a form of stretchy plastic called Ecoflex and a graphite paste developed by the team.
Tiny permanent magnets attached at either end of the robots’ tubular bodies help them to move along a metal surface. The sensors in their skin help them ‘sense’ their movements in relation to their bodies by measuring the electrical resistance of the graphite paste, which changes as the robots’ bodies expand. When the resistance reaches a pre-set maximum value, the body contracts again, moving it forward.
Professor Ravinder Dahiya of the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering leads the BEST group, which developed the system.
Professor Dahiya said: “Proprioception is a vital characteristic of many forms of biological life, and scientists have long been inspired to try and develop engineered systems which mimic this ability.
“Our bioinspired robots are a step towards creating soft, flexible robot systems capable of the infinite directions of movement that nature has created in inchworms and earthworms.
“The ability of soft robots like these to adapt to their surroundings through seamlessly embedded stretchable sensors could help autonomous robots more effectively navigate through even the most challenging environments.”
The team’s paper, titled Bioinspired Inchworm and Earthworm like Soft Robots with Intrinsic Strain Sensing, is published in Advanced Intelligent Systems. The research was supported by funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the European Commission.