Scientists in Japan have developed a caterpillar-inspired robot that could be used to monitor changes in the Earth's environment in the future.

Takuya Umedachi, a researcher from the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Information Science and Technology, has been studying the physical features of various animals to find out which ones he can adapt for his robot designs.

It's not uncommon for modern-day engineers to take cues from nature when it comes to building robots. Some of the more recent inventions incorporate traits similar to those of boneless animals, such as the octopus, praying mantis, jellyfish, and starfish.

Researchers prefer to use these creatures because their bodies are considered to be more resistant to damaging yet flexible enough to get past many of the obstacles that impede the progress of regular, hard-shelled automatons.

Umedachi said these types of robots are more suitable for a human environment, since their softer features can help people feel safer when interacting with them.

One downside to creating soft robots, however, is that materials tend to take on complex shapes that make them more difficult to control using conventional techniques. Researchers often have to make a substantial amount of number crunching in order to properly model and predict their invention's behavior.

Soft Robot Caterpillar

To find out how they can better control the movements of soft robots, the UTokyo researchers studied the behavior of caterpillars of a species of moth known as Manduca sexta. Throughout their long years of evolution, caterpillars have developed a complex way of movement that doesn't require too much brain processing.

Umedachi and his colleagues discovered that insects in this larval phase do not depend on their brain to guide their body movement, especially since they only have a limited number of neurons to use. Instead, the creatures employ a more decentralized system to control their bodies.

The researchers' model suggests that caterpillars use sensory neurons found in their soft tissues to transfer data to their muscles. This, in turn, causes the insects' body to move in concert with the relayed signal.

Taking inspiration from caterpillars, Umedachi and his team came up with a soft robot design that incorporates similar body features to those of the insects. They attached sensors to their robot to help guide its movement on various surfaces.

The researchers then used computer data to fine tune their control over the invention's motors. The end result was a soft robot that can move on surfaces by deforming its four segments.

Data gathered by the robot's sensors can also be used to control its inching and crawling motions even without putting too much emphasis on guidance mechanisms.

Umedachi explained that the softness of their robot's body can be a key factor in coming up with intelligent robot behaviors.

Practical Applications

UTokyo's soft robot can have a number of practical applications, not least of which is the monitoring of various changes in the environment.

Umedachi said he would like to develop a caterpillar-like robot capable of moving around tree branches. These devices can have cameras and sensors attached to them so that they could collect scientific data from such spots.

The findings of the University of Tokyo study are featured in the journal Open Science.

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