MIT’s new robot can ‘grow’ like a plant, and squeeze through tight spaces

This is yet another proof of the benefits of biomimicry in robotics. MIT researchers have presented a type of robot that can spread like a plant at an early age. The team managed to develop a ‘non-soft’ that does not depends on a soft structure to reach a desirable height.

The growing robot is not only flexible to twist and turn in any necessary configuration, but also rigid enough to support heavy loads or apply torque to assemble parts in tight spaces. It can extend to areas where a person could not, possessing the stiffness and strength necessary to support itself.

The robot seeks to solve challenges that arise in the current industrial and commercial robots in terms of the versatility they have to reach a specific area.

The plant-inspired “growing robot” consists of a bendy sequence of 3-D-printed plastic units interlocked with each other, similar to a bicycle chain. A “growing point,” or gearbox, pulls a loose chain of interlocking blocks into the box. Gears in the box then lock the chain units together and feed the chain out, unit by unit, as a rigid appendage. When the task is complete, the robot can retract the appendage and extend it again, at a different length and shape, to suit the next task.

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.”

The team claims that when the chain is locked and rigid, it is strong enough to support a heavy, one-pound (around 0.5) weight.

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