Drawing inspiration from natural organisms like vines, fungi and nerve cells, Stanford University researchers have developed a soft, vine-like robot that can grow across long distances without moving its whole body. The developers of the robot claim their device can move through tight environments that are impossible for drones, humans or hard body robots to access. Researchers also reveal that their robot could be very useful in applications like search and rescue operations, surgical procedures, or feeding cables through cramped spaces.

Main features of the robot

In the past, scientists have built many robots that mimic the movement of animals or organisms. However, this is the first time that a robot mimicking the movement and growth of ivy vines has been developed. Elliot Hawkes, the lead author of this research and a roboticist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says he got the idea to design this robot after watching an English ivy plant that was growing around the corner of his bookshelf.

The robot developed by Hawkes and his team can grow at speeds of 22 mph (35.4 km/h). It stores a flexible polyethylene plastic tube within the core of its body, and this tube starts to grow from the tip when internal air pressure is applied.

There are different chambers inside the robot’s body. The person who is operating this robot needs to inflate robot’s one side more than the other to make it steer right or left. The robot is about 28 cm (11 inches) in length, but after application of air pressure, it attains a maximum length of 72 meters (236 feet). The camera installed at the tip acts like an eye and transmits the pictures/video to the base of the robot through a cable that runs within the body of the robot.

The camera also allows the operator to select the direction in which the plastic tube needs to be moved to reach its desired destination.

Possible applications of the robot

One possible application of this robot could be in searching people in the rubble of a collapsed building. The device will be placed at the entrance of the debris, and then the plastic tube will extend, like a vine, into the mass of dirt and stones.

The camera will then provide rescuers a view of the places beneath the rubble. Researchers say they are also working with neurosurgeons to reduce robot’s body size to make it suitable for use in minimally invasive surgery.

The details of this study have been published in the journal Science Robotics.