A new soft robot designed by researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara can ‘grow’ like a plant — only much faster.

Softbot navigating maze.

Image credits Elliot W. Hawkes et al., 2017.

A team from Stanford Uni and the University of California, led by Elliot Hawkes of UoC’s Department of Mechanical Engineering designed and build a prototype soft-robot that can grow to explore its environments, akin to a vine of fungus. The design could help create a new class of robots which can traverse cramped or otherwise constrained environments.

The robot’s mechanical body is housed inside a plastic tube reel. The tube can be pneumatically extended, in a manner similar to how some invertebrates (such as Sipunculus nudus, the peanut worm) move around.

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The plastic tube also allows the robot to change direction — one component handles the inflating process, while another allows the whole thing to shift direction. To see when it’s about to run into something, the robot also comes equipped with a nose-mounted camera.

Overall, the robot can extend up to 72 meters in length, at a speed of 10 meters per second. As a proof-of-concept of their prototype bot, Hawkes’ team had it crawl through flypaper, glue, even over a bed of nails.

They even programmed it to form various 3-D structures (such as a radio antenna), used it to turn off a valve, and had it act as a fire extinguisher.

A paper describing the robot, titled “A soft robot that navigates its environment through growth,” has been published in the journal Science Robotics.

All images and video credits to Image credits Elliot W. Hawkes et al., 2017, Science Robotics.