The animal kingdom has been a great inspiration when it comes to robot development for a while now, but researchers from Stanford University unveiled a new soft robot that has abilities surpassing currently released soft robots.
The new "Vinebot" was inspired by Ivy vines and can reportedly grow thousands of times its original length from the tip at speeds of up to 22 mph without pause as it navigates through complicated paths, and avoid or address obstacles by growing in another direction. It can keep on growing as long as the operator needs it, for as long as there is still enough plastic folded inside it.
Just for comparison, an average person can run up to 15 mph for short periods of time, which means Vinebot would leave a person — except Usain Bolt and some other Olympic runners — in the dust in a race.
"Essentially, we're trying to understand the fundamentals of this new approach to getting mobility or movement out of a mechanism," Professor of mechanical engineering and senior author of the study, Allison Okamura explained.
Meet The Vinebot
A team of mechanical engineers led by Professor Okamura detailed their concept for a growing soft robot in a paper published in June. The team also developed a prototype of the Vinebot, which they tested by navigating various obstacles.
The prototype of Vinebot was made of cheap plastic folded inside itself, which can grow by using pressurized air. What is interesting is that other soft robots move the entire length of its body as it "grows," but Vinebot grows from the tip, so any part of its body that gets affected by the environment will not slow down or hinder its mission in the slightest.
"The body can be stuck to the environment or jammed between rocks, but that doesn't stop the robot because the tip can continue to progress as new material is added to the end," Assistant Professor Elliot Hawkes said.
The Vinebot's material also allows it enough flexibility to enter tight spaces or maintain its size as needed, and it is even tough enough to lift a 100-kilogram crate (220 pounds) and navigate other obstacles after it.
Watch the Vinebot in action below.
What Makes Vinebot Stand Out
The unhindered mobility is really what makes Vinebot stand out, because other robots especially rigid ones, could get stuck and end up with damaged parts. This is why the team focused a lot of energy into ensuring that Vinebot is flexible and sturdy enough for any terrain it may encounter.
According to the team, Vinebot can be used in various applications from setting up wiring in tight spaces to search and rescue operations. However, the team's main concern with regard to the Vinebot's development is its ability to keep on moving even in unpredictable terrain.
"The applications we're focusing on are those where the robot moves through a difficult environment ... If you can put a robot in these environments and it's unaffected by the obstacles while it's moving, you don't need to worry about it getting damaged or stuck as it explores," graduate student team member Laura Blumenschein said.
The team has already developed a 1.8 mm version of the prototype, but also plans to make a larger version. The next step is to test out other tougher materials that can offer the same flexibility as the cheap plastic the team used.