The giant worm-bot

Super-sized robotic worm that can wiggle around obstacles developed

A giant robotic worm that can wiggle its way around obstacles has been developed by a University of Leeds researcher.

The ‘worm-bot’ is 2000 times larger than the 1mm-long worm it is modelled on - the C. elegans nematode, which is a tiny free-living worm that uses an ultra-simple nervous system to control the way that it moves.

Dr Jordan Boyle, designer of the worm-bot, hopes that in the future the robotic worm could be used by search and rescue crews to send heat-seeking equipment into collapsed buildings or deliver aid to trapped survivors.

“A future version of this robot could potentially navigate through irregular gaps and holes in buildings that had been damaged by fire, explosions or earthquakes,” said engineering research fellow Dr Boyle, who carried out the work at the University’s Schools of Computing and Mechanical Engineering.

“Given the correct ‘skin’, the next version of this robot should also be able to deal with different environments. For example, it should be able to swim through water or crawl through snow or mud, even if it has to weave its way between natural obstacles, such as boulders or trees.”

The worm-bot has a rigid backbone like a snake, but has a series of springs along the length of its body to give it a worm-like flexibility. The system driving the robot forward is essentially the same as the C. elegans nematode – but with a few tweaks to improve the robot’s performance. As a result, the worm-bot deals with obstacles in a very different way to other flexible, floor-crawling robots.

Snake-or worm-like robots are typically propelled forwards by an ‘ideal’ wave that their control system has worked out in advance. When they meet an obstacle, the control system senses that something is hampering the way it wants to move and directs the robot to change its shape accordingly.

However, when the worm-bot hits an obstacle it doesn’t need to know how that has altered the shape of its body in order to carry on – it just keeps on going.

“The combination of the flexible control system and the ‘bendy’ body means that the robot adapts blindly to any obstacles that are preventing it from moving forward. Basically the worm-bot is thinking: ‘go, go, go!’” Dr Boyle said.

“At the moment, this does mean that the worm-bot has no idea where it will end up so there is a small chance that it might get stuck. A future version would just need to include an extra layer of ‘intelligence’ to the control system that could step in if the robot needed extra help to wriggle its way out of a corner,” he said.

Further information:

See a video of the prototype worm-bot wriggling its way around an obstacle course.

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