‘Soft’ caterpillar robot can squeeze through tiny gaps; could be used in disasters

A ‘soft’ robot that moves in a similar fashion to a caterpillar has been developed by researchers at the University of Houston.

The robot is composed of ultra-thin sensing, actuating electronics and temperature-sensitive artificial muscle that can adapt to the environment and crawl, similar to the movement of an inchworm or caterpillar.

Assistant professor Cunjiang Yu said potential applications range from surgery and rehabilitation to search and rescue in natural disasters or on the battlefield.

As the robot body changes shape in response to its surroundings, it could slip through narrow crevices to search for survivors in the rubble left by an earthquake or bombing, he said.

“They sense the change in environment and adapt to slip through,” he said.

These soft robots, made of soft artificial muscle and ultra-thin deformable sensors and actuators, have significant advantages over the traditional rigid robots used for automation and other physical tasks.

The researchers said their work took its inspiration from nature. “Many creatures, such as inchworms that have completely soft compliant bodies without any rigid components (e.g. bones), exhibit unprecedented abilities in adapting their shapes and morphologies and unique locomotion behaviours,” they wrote.

Traditional soft robots lack the ability to adapt to their environments or move on their own.

The prototype adaptive soft robot includes a liquid-crystal elastomer doped with carbon-black nanoparticles (to enhance thermal conductivity) as the artificial muscle, combined with ultra-thin mesh-shaped stretchable thermal actuators and silicon-based light sensors. The thermal actuators provide heat to activate the robot.

The prototype is small - 28.6mm in length (approximately one inch) - but Yu said it could easily be scaled up in the next stage, along with experimenting with various types of sensors. While the prototype uses heat-sensitive sensors, it could employ smart materials activated by light or other cues, he said.

“This is the first of its kind,” Yu said. “You can use other sensors, depending on what you want it to do.”

In 2016, Californian researchers demonstrated a robot that took inspiration from cockroaches and could also squeeze itself into tiny gaps for use in disaster areas. 

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