Twister robot with two-pronged grasper

Art-inspired ‘tower’ robot could assist with keyhole surgery

Image credit: Russell Lee

A team of researchers at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, has developed a 3D-printed, origami-inspired robot nicknamed “Twister” which is capable of handling delicate objects.

Origami-inspired objects begin their work in a compact form, before folding themselves into a new, useful structure. Robots inspired by the ancient Japanese art have been designed to unfold inside the human body to perform medical procedures and even fold new exoskeletons for themselves to alter their functions.

Now, Professor Kiju Lee and her team at the Distributed Intelligence and Robotics Lab at Case Western University have created a fully collapsible origami-inspired robot shaped like a tower which could safely interact with humans in a range of future applications.

Its design was inspired by the work of Mihoko Tachibana, an origami artist known for his twisting origami towers, constructed from colourful paper folded into different polygons.

Professor Lee - a longstanding fan of Tachibana’s art - began experimenting with paper to design and build the tower, before moving on to 3D printing. The robotic tower, nicknamed the Twister (TWISted toWer Robot), is made from interlocking layers of triangles, hexagons and octagons.

The Twister has cable-based actuators and a soft, two-pronged grasper at its tip, which absorbs excess force (by distributing it and deforming) for a lighter touch. The tower can bend, contract, twist, extend and crawl on its side, even grasping objects as delicate as ripe fruit and eggs without causing damage.

Professor Lee is currently exploring alternative approaches to inducing motion - such as shape-memory-alloys - which could free Twister from its restrictive tethering.

While rigid robots are already widespread in manufacturing and other applications, soft robots are beginning to emerge as a field of robotics with more organic applications. These robots are in some ways hardier than their rigid colleagues - they do not shatter when they fall - but are also ideal for completing tasks which require a delicate touch, such as picking ripe fruit or helping nurses care for vulnerable patients.

“Among the possibilities for this robot are fragile-object manipulation and direct human-robot interaction, because these robots are soft and safe,” said Professor Lee. “Twister is very different from rigid-body robots.”

She suggests that Twister could work alongside humans on an assembly line, as a robotic arm for space applications (where its ability to fully collapse could prove useful within the confines of an orbiting lab), and could even be miniaturised and used for minimally invasive surgeries, including laproscopic surgery: keyhole surgery.

“Laproscopic surgery often requires some rigid pieces, and movement to control them from the outside causes stress on the tissues,” Professor Lee said. Robots with a gentler touch – like Twister – are most likely to find applications these people-centred fields, where the rigidity of conventional robots may cause bruising and other discomforts.

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