25 January 2007

New Soft Bodied Robot is Continuously Deformable

Robotics research at Tufts University is introducing some novel concepts into robot design. Taking some cues from how caterpillars move, and how spiders and silkworms create silk, Tufts researchers are designing robots that will move in new ways, and squeeze more efficiently into tight spaces.
Barry Trimmer, professor of biology, and David Kaplan, professor of biomedical engineering, are co-directors of the Biomimetic Technologies for Soft-bodied Robots project, which represents a consortium of seven Tufts faculty members from five departments in the School of Engineering and the School of Arts and Sciences. The project has just been awarded a grant of $730,000 from the W.M. Keck Foundation.

According to Kaplan, the project will bring together biology, bioengineering and micro/nano fabrication. “Our overall goal is to develop systems and devices--soft-bodied robots--based on biological materials and on the adaptive mechanisms found in living cells, tissues and whole organisms,” he explains. These devices, he notes, will have direct applications in robotics, such as manufacturing, emergency search and retrieval, and repair and maintenance of equipment in space; in medical diagnosis and treatment, including endoscopy, remote surgery, and prostheses design; and in novel electronics such as soft circuits and power supplies.

....The Keck grant will provide the team with specialized equipment for use with soft materials and biomechanics experiments, according to Trimmer, whose work with caterpillars provides insights on how to build the world’s first soft-bodied robot (http://ase.tufts.edu/biology/faculty/trimmer/locomotion.html). Trimmer, a neurobiologist, has been studying the nervous system and biology since 1990 through grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. His goal has been to better understand how the creatures can control their fluid movements using a simple brain and how they can move so flexibly without any joints. He hopes to adapt his caterpillar research to this new project using the expertise of Tufts engineers.

Kaplan, whose laboratory focuses on biopolymer engineering (http://ase.tufts.edu/biomedical/faculty-staff/kaplan.asp) , has already uncovered the secret of how spiders and silkworms are able to spin webs and cocoons made of incredibly strong yet flexible fibers. More recently, his team applied genetic engineering and nanotechnology to create a “fusion protein” that for the first time combined the toughness of spider silk with the intricate structure of silica. Kaplan notes that there has been tremendous progress in the development and use of soft materials in devices ranging from keyboards to toys. “However, it is very hard to make soft devices that move around and can be precisely controlled,” he says. “This is the fundamental reason why robots currently move like robots instead of lifelike animals.”

The new robots developed at Tufts will be continuously deformable and capable of collapsing and crumpling into small volumes. They will have capabilities that are not currently available in single machines including climbing textured surfaces and irregular objects, crawling along ropes and wires, or burrowing into complex confined spaces. “Soft-bodied robots could make many dangerous surgeries much safer and less painful,” Trimmer adds. “They could also be used by NASA to repair space stations by reaching places that astronauts can’t, perform more complicated tasks in industry that require flexibility of movement, help in hazardous environments like nuclear reactors and landmine detection, and squeeze more efficiently into tight spaces.”
Source.

Remember the Terminator in T2 that could squeeze between bars in a locked door or fence, or ooze through narrow cracks under doors? Such a robot could be made to navigate blood vessels to perform microsurgery, or perform covert surveillance of suspected terrorists. Just for a start.

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