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Forget light bulbs. GE’s latest creation is a giant, tunneling robotic worm

As a long-standing American giant of industry and one of the country’s largest firms, General Electric has its finger in many of the biggest pies: Kitchen appliances, health care, lighting, power generation, giant robot earthworms … wait, what? Yes, while it might sound unlikely, this last product category is one that GE’s research division is actively investigating. And it’s just landed a big $2.5 million award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to ensure the project continues crawling along.

“What makes this so unique is that we’re really drawing inspiration from two sources in nature: The earthworm and tree roots,” Deepak Trivedi, who is leading this project for GE Research, told Digital Trends. “From the earthworm, we’re mimicking its fast rhythmic movements to rapidly and efficiently form the tunnels we’re trying to form. And from the tree roots, we’re mimicking [their] scale and ability to create large force by studying how roots grow into the ground. It’s the combination of these two forces of nature that makes our project — and robot — so unique.”

The soft robot tunneler is made up of large segmented pieces, which act like the fluid-filled “hydrostatic skeleton” found in invertebrates. The robot’s artificial muscles move like a real earthworm’s in order to propel it forward, while the segmented design also gives it impressive freedom of movement and the ability to maneuver into difficult-to-reach places. It is for this reason that Defense giant DARPA awarded it the funds as part of its Underminer project, which seeks to develop technology capable of “rapidly constructing tactical tunnel networks” for potential military application.

“Our immediate focus is to fulfill the key objectives of the DARPA program in advancing tunneling technologies,” Trivedi said. “By the end of the project, we’re aiming to demonstrate a robot that can move at a speed of 10 centimeters per second and dig a tunnel that is 500 meters in length and at least 10 centimeters in diameter.”

This isn’t the only place the robot worm could be used. GE Research also sees possible applications involving laying down power lines and optical fiber cables for high-speed internet, or for industrial inspection and repair tasks.

“If you have ever looked inside the crevasses of a jet engine or a power-generation turbine, we see the potential to apply a soft robotics platform to inspect the insides of these large, complex machines and even make intricate repairs,” Trivedi said.

All promising stuff. Unless it’s caught by a giant robot bird, that is!

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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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