As It Happens

Scientists have created a robot tendril that extends like a vine

While most robots are designed to mimic human or animal movement, one of the engineers behind a new robot says this one was inspired by an ivy plant he had in his office.
This robot moves through hard to navigate places by extending its body. (E.W. Hawkes, L.H. Blumenschein, and J.D. Greer.)

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A team of American scientists has created an elongating robot they hope will one day slither through the rubble of a collapsed building, or possibly the veins of a human being. 

"I think a lot of people think of robots as humans made out of metal, but ours is quite different," Elliot Hawkes, a mechanical engineer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"It's related to this new field of soft robotics, where instead of making robots out of metal links and motors and rigid parts, we're starting to think about more organic materials and shapes."

While most robots are designed to mimic human or animal movement, Hawkes said this one was inspired by an ivy plant he had in his office. 

He said that over the course of a few months, the plant slowly grew around the corner of a bookcase to "try and get to the light of the window.

"Even though the thing didn't really move — I mean the pot didn't move, the base didn't move — it was navigating its environment."

The new robot, created in partnership with Stanford University, works exactly the same way.

While its base remains rooted in place, the robot's body elongates from the tip to get where it needs to be.

It can extend to 236 feet (72 metres), unfurling like a rolled-up sock.

"What's interesting is all the controls in the pump, in the computer, the power, all that, is situated in a base, which remains static," Hawkes said. "And then the part that's moving through the environment is very simple — just a long plastic tube."

The team hopes the robot will have applications in the fields of construction, and search and rescue within the next five years. 

"It's very robust at moving through cluttered and constrained environments. It's actually difficult to stop the thing from moving once it gets going. It always seems to find a path," Hawkes said.

It may even be able to lift rubble as it moves, he said. 

Despite being made of a light, inflated plastic, its ability to coil around a large area means it can shoulder significant weight — a feat the researchers demonstrated by having it lift up a crate.

It could also have medical applications, Hawkes said.

The team is working with an endovascular surgeon who inserts catheters through patients' arteries to treat things like aneurysms and blood clots.

"This is actually a really challenging surgery. You can imagine putting these catheters through this very complicated and twisty vasculature​," he said. "There's a lot of tight turns."

A tiny vine bot, equipped with a camera, could make that easier, he said. 

Medicine, however, is a slow moving field with lots of checks and balances along the way to ensure safety, so it could be another decade before the invention is used in a hospital setting.

In the meantime, you can read more about the team's ivy-inspired robot in the journal Science Robotics.

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