Crazy vine robot will grow to rescue survivors, put out fires, and more

Just when you thought you had seen every kind of robot under the sun, researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Barbara come along and introduce you to something totally new. In this case, it’s a quick-growing soft robot that’s able to extend itself up to 236 feet in length, and navigate through some impressive tight spaces — all by pumping itself up with air.

“We’ve developed a soft robot that extends from its tip in order to navigate its environment,” Professor Elliot Hawkes, lead researcher on the project, told Digital Trends. “It’s pretty different from traditional mobile robots, because the body doesn’t move, but rather grows in length. This has some interesting advantages, [such as the fact] that it creates a structure as it moves, which can later be used to move materials through.”

The robot was inspired by the natural world. While we’ve seen plenty of robots inspired by animal locomotion, in this case it was inspired by natural organisms such as vines which cover great distances by growing. It also exhibits some surprising superpowers, including the ability to manipulate itself in such a way that it can lift a 100-kilo crate, extend under a door gap that is just 10 percent of its diameter, and even spiral on itself in a way that allows it to form a freestanding structure for sending out a radio signal.

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E.W. Hawkes, L.H. Blumenschein, and J.D. Greer
E.W. Hawkes, L.H. Blumenschein, and J.D. Greer

The soft robot determines which direction it should “grow” in via image recognition, taken from a tiny camera sensor located at the robot’s tip. For now, it’s powered by pneumatic air pressure, although the researchers say later iterations could also grow using liquid, which opens up a number of new potential use-cases.

“One of the areas we’re most interested in is search and rescue,” Hawkes continued. “We imagine growing the robots through rubble and debris to help find trapped survivors. The robot could deliver water or oxygen to the survivor, and possibly pry rubble off the survivor. We’re also looking at a much smaller scale [version], hopefully with applications in endovascular surgery.”

Yes, you read that correctly: the long-term goal is that this could be made small enough to one day fit inside blood vessels for surgery. “We’re down to 1.8mm diameter right now,” Hawkes said. If there’s a more versatile robot project in 2017, we’d love to see it!

A paper describing the vine robot was published in the journal Science Robotics.

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