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Harvard looks to the natural world to make its snake robots even faster

Snake-inspired robot slithers even better than predecessor

Snake-inspired robots are a surprisingly active class of robotics, and researchers from Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have just found a way to make them even better. As we’ve written before, the lab is experimenting with soft robotic outer shells that are created using a Japanese paper craft called kirigami. This involves utilizing cuts to change the properties of a material. With nothing more than this deceptively simple method, the researchers have developed a way to create a new 3D outer shell that makes its snake robots move faster — by gripping the ground like a real snake.

“Imagine instead of manipulating the chemistry, we [could] use geometry and the shape of the microstructure of materials to desirably enable any material to respond the way we want,” Katia Bertoldi, professor of applied mechanics at SEAS, told Digital Trends. “We are mechanical engineers and are interested in mechanical properties. In our community, we call these materials that have mechanical properties beyond natural materials ‘mechanical metamaterials.’”

While the project is very much research-oriented, investigations like this open up some fascinating possibilities. It showcases how changes in material, such as having pop-up scales on an otherwise flat surface, can result in much greater levels of efficiency. It’s also a reminder of the power of biomimicry, and how basing tech solutions on evolutionary answers provided by the natural world can offer up exciting new paths forward.

Harvard SEAS

“[As far as future work goes], we are looking for a more systematic tool to design and manipulate the response of kirigami-skinned robots,” Lishuai Jin and Bolei Deng, two other researchers on the project, told us. “Currently, many advancements rely on creativity and, to some extent, brute -force designs. A current question in our mind is how to solve the inverse problem: Imagine you want a soft arm with a desired trajectory; we want to know how to cut the skin. That’s not easy.”

For now, though, it seems the world can just ready itself for faster robot snakes.

A paper describing the team’s work titled “Propagation of Pop-ups in Kirigami Shells” was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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