Plant-inspired robot curls and climbs like a vine
Plants might not seem like the most exciting thing to model robots after, but they could make for high-tech decorations or house plants that look after themselves. Now, a team of Italian researchers has developed a soft robot that moves like plant tendrils, climbing and curling around objects.
The team, led by Barbara Mazzolai at the IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, has previously worked on the Plantoid project, which was a robotic tree full of with electronic sensors.
The new robot is basically just a flexible PET tube, and it's powered by a 1.3 volt battery. Like its biological counterpart, it gets around on a hydraulic system – where plant tendrils move and flex thanks to intracellular fluid full of small particles, the robot is filled with a liquid containing ions. When the power is switched on, these ions are drawn to flexible electrodes built into the bottom, which causes the robot to contract. Switching the power off causes the fluid to spread back out, causing the tendril to expand again.
Before building the robot, the researchers first crunched the numbers to work out the optimal size for a device that wouldn't be too slow. Eventually, they settled on what looks like a foil vine about 1 mm in diameter.
Currently this device is mostly a proof of concept, but the team says that eventually the idea could be adapted to make soft, flexible robots for exploration, which maybe similar to the snake design Stanford showed off a few years ago. The tech may also wind up in wearable electronic devices that can morph and move.
The researchers are now working on a new project named "Growbot," which can sense its surroundings and change its growth and movements accordingly. Eventually it might even be able to recognize the surfaces it's clinging to.
The research was published in the journal Nature Communications. The robotic tendril can be seen in action in the video below.