‘Plant inspired’ robot designed to be delicate

Robot arm
© iStock/Zapp2Photo

Researchers have recently developed a ‘plant inspired’ robot design to perform the delicate tasks that machines struggle with today.

Robots in today’s factories and warehouses are struggling to keep up with the technical advancement of the products they are making. Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have designed a robot to help cope with this strain on production.

The robot created by MIT is designed to extend a flexible chain like appendage which can twist and turn in any configuration. Despite it being incredibly flexible, the appendage is still rigid enough to support heavy loads.

The engineers behind this new robot were inspired by the way plants grow. By transporting nutrients in a fluidised form, a plant is able to distribute fuel to its leaves. Then the plant can convert the nutrients into solid mass to support the stem.

Similar to the structure of a plant, this robot consists of a growing point, or gear box, that pulls on a loose chain of interlocking blocks into the box. Gears in the box then lock the chain units together then feed the chain out my unit.

Researchers have proposed that grippers, cameras and other sensors could be mounted to the robot allowing it to navigate through aircraft’s systems to tighten screws or conduct delicate warehouse work.

“Think about changing the oil in your car,” says Harry Asada, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “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.”

“Now we have a robot that can potentially accomplish such tasks,” says Tongxi Yan, a former graduate student in Asada’s lab, who led the work. “It can grow, retract, and grow again to a different shape, to adapt to its environment.”

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