The MIT robot that grows like a plant
Roboticists at MIT have developed a new robot with an extending limb that grows a bit like a plant. The appendage can weave its way through confined spaces before lifting a heavy load.
The bicycle chain-like arm is apparently flexible enough to find its way through more or less any space, but rigid enough to lift loads or apply torque. The chain extends itself by pulling along interlocking 3D-printed blocks that, when fixed together, extend the arm.
A winch is used to turn the chain, feeding it through a set of motors which can be programmed to lock the blocks into different configurations. By locking some blocks together, and leaving others unlocked, the arm can be made to grow in different shapes and directions. Once its task is complete, the robot can retract the arm and re-extend it in a different configuration to suit a new task.
The robot is designed to address the "last one-foot problem," essentially the question of how a robot goes about its task once it gets to where it's going. Though a robot may spend the vast majority of its time traveling, it's all for nothing if it can't execute its mission on arrival.
The technology brings to mind oft-cited search and rescue scenarios as a a potential use-case, though MIT points to more day-to-day uses like reaching for something at the back of a shelf or rummaging through a vehicle propulsion system to find and tighten a loose screw.
"Think about changing the oil in your car," explains MIT professor of mechanical engineering Harry Asada. "After you open the engine roof, you have to be flexible enough to make sharp turns, left and right, to get to the oil filter, and then you have to be strong enough to twist the oil filter cap to remove it."
Where previous attempts to solve the last one-foot problem involved soft materials like expanding balloon-like materials, these tend not to be able to support useful tools like grippers, cameras and other sensors. This new technology, though flexible, is also rigid enough to support such devices up to a weight of 1 pound (0.5 kg).
The so-called growing robot was presented this week at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) in Macau.
You can see the technology in action in the short animation below.