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Machines Like Us

Soft autonomous robot inches along like an earthworm

Sunday, 19 August 2012
by Jennifer Chu

Flexible design enables body-morphing capability.

Earthworms creep along the ground by alternately squeezing and stretching muscles along the length of their bodies, inching forward with each wave of contractions. Snails and sea cucumbers also use this mechanism, called peristalsis, to get around, and our own gastrointestinal tracts operate by a similar action, squeezing muscles along the esophagus to push food to the stomach.

Now researchers at MIT, Harvard University and Seoul National University have engineered a soft autonomous robot that moves via peristalsis, crawling across surfaces by contracting segments of its body, much like an earthworm. The robot, made almost entirely of soft materials, is remarkably resilient: Even when stepped upon or bludgeoned with a hammer, the robot is able to inch away, unscathed.

Sangbae Kim, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, says such a soft robot may be useful for navigating rough terrain or squeezing through tight spaces.

The robot is named “Meshworm” for the flexible, meshlike tube that makes up its body. Researchers created “artificial muscle” from wire made of nickel and titanium — a shape-memory alloy that stretches and contracts with heat. They wound the wire around the tube, creating segments along its length, much like the segments of an earthworm. They then applied a small current to the segments of wire, squeezing the mesh tube and propelling the robot forward. The team recently published details of the design in the journal IEEE/ASME Transactions on Mechatronics.

In addition to Kim, the paper’s authors are graduate student Sangok Seok and postdoc Cagdas Denizel Onal at MIT, associate professor Robert J. Wood at Harvard, assistant professor Kyu-Jin Cho PhD ’07 of Seoul National University, and Daniela Rus, professor of computer science and engineering and director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Soft-serve robotics

In the past few decades, many roboticists have looked for ways to engineer soft robotic systems. Without bulky, breakable hardware, soft robots might be able to explore hard-to-reach spaces and traverse bumpy terrain. Their pliable exteriors also make them safe for human interaction.

A significant challenge in soft robotics has been in designing soft actuators, or motors, to power such robots. One solution has been to use compressed air, carefully pumped through a robot to move it. But Kim says air-powered, or pneumatic, robots require bulky pumps. “Integrating micro air compressors into a small autonomous robot is a challenge,” Kim says.