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Stretchy worm-like robots open up new possibilities for movement

Scientists have developed stretchy worm-like robots, inspired by the movements of worms, that can be used for industrial applications and prosthetics.

A team of engineers from the University of Glasgow says the ‘roboworms’ can stretch up to nine times their own length and are capable of a form of proprioception – the method by which biological organisms such as worms since their position in space. This allows the robot worms to squeeze into tight spots that rigid robots cannot reach.

The researchers hope the invention could lead to a new generation of robots capable of autonomously exploring hard-to-reach places, which could be used in areas such as mining and construction or disaster relief to search for survivors trapped in the rubble.

The technology could also be used to develop more lifelike prosthetics or equip robots with the ability to wrap and lift irregularly shaped heavy objects. The way the robots move is inspired by the movements of inchworms and earthworms.

Professor Ravinder Dahiya, from the James Watt School of Engineering at the University of Glasgow, leads the Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (Best) group that developed the system.

“Proprioception is an essential feature of many forms of biological life,” said Professor Ravinder Dahiya, “and scientists have long been inspired to try to develop engineering systems that mimic this ability.

“Our bio-inspired robots are a step towards creating soft, flexible robotic systems capable of the infinite directions of motion nature has created in inchworms and earthworms.

“The ability of soft robots like these to adapt to their environment through seamlessly embedded stretchable sensors could help autonomous robots navigate even the most challenging environments more effectively.”

Stretchy worm-like robots open up new possibilities for movement

The worm-like robots have intrinsic tension sensors and are covered in “skin” made from a form of stretchable plastic called Ecoflex and a graphite paste developed by the team. Tiny permanent magnets attached to either end of the robots’ tubular bodies allow them to move along a metal surface.

The sensors in their skin help them “feel” their movements in relation to their bodies by measuring the electrical resistance of the graphite paste, which changes as the robots’ bodies expand. When the resistance reaches a preset maximum value, the body contracts again and moves forward.

The team’s research report, “Bioinspired Inchworm And Earthworm Like Soft Robots With Intrinsic Strain Sensing,” is published in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems.

The research was supported by funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the European Commission.