Meshworm – a soft autonomous robot

Posted on Aug 11 2012 - 10:50am by Phalgun Shenoy

Scientists keep creating innovate cool stuffs, and this time it’s a robot which looks like, hmmm, an earthworm. Designers at MIT have managed to create a robot which moves forward like an earthworm and works autonomously. It is pretty small which helps it resist most of the bashes, drops and rough terrain coming on its way.

The newly developed robot is able to move forward using earthworm like movements. The robot is christened as “Meshworm”, and Sangbae Kim, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, says that it’s an innovative step forward towards robots navigating through tight spaces and rough terrains.

Speaking of earthworms, these tiny pipe like creatures move forward by alternately squeezing and stretching muscles that are located along the length of their bodies. Technically, the organism moves forward with every wave of contractions. This mechanism is called as peristalsis and other known creatures using this kind of bodily movements to traverse around include snails and sea cucumbers. Peristalsis can be found in our own body too, in gastrointestinal tracts to be exact. The muscles along esophagus operate by a similar action by squeezing muscles on the walls of esophagus in order to push food down to the stomach.

Like the earthworms, even Meshworm uses peristalsis to move around. The robot is equipped with two muscle groups – circular muscle fibers that wraps around its body and, longitudinal muscle fibers that run along its length. The body is built using heat sealed sheet of polymer mesh which is in turn made by interlacing polymer fibers, thus making the whole structure durable while allowing it to stretch and contract like a coil. If you are curious about the artificial muscle implemented on this device, it is made up of nickel-titanium alloy that is fabricated into a wire. The alloy wire is then wound around the mesh body of the robot, which is then connected to a battery and coupled with a circuit board inside the tiny robot. The circuit instructs when the battery should generate electricity, which will heat certain sections of the wire, or artificial muscle in the body.

If you are wondering what heating has to anything with movement of the robot, when a segment of muscle fiber is heated to a certain temperature, the wire as a result will contract. The tube body is in turn squeezed due to contraction, thus propelling Meshworm forward. The robot is pretty flexible too.

“You can throw it, and it won’t collapse. Most mechanical parts are rigid and fragile at small scale, but the parts in Meshworms are all fibrous and flexible. The muscles are soft, and the body is soft … we’re starting to show some body-morphing capability.” – Sangbae Kim

Kellar Autumn, professor of biology at Lewis and Clark College, researches on implementing biomechanics of animal motion into designing soft robotics. Here’s what he had to say about Meshworm and future projects such as endoscopes, implants, and prosthetics based on the same idea.

“Even though the robot’s body is much simpler than a real worm — it has only a few segments — it appears to have quite impressive performance. I predict that in the next decade we will see shape-changing artificial muscles in many products, such as mobile phones, portable computers and automobiles.” – Autumn

Researchers at MIT, Harvard University and Seoul National University are busy working on this project, and The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also supporting this cause. The video below show’s the robot in action.

Given its versatility, the robot does seem to have a bring future. How about robot earthworm moving around Mars in multiple numbers? What are your thoughts on this? Let us know using the comment form below.

Source: MIT

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