Designing robots Nature's way

Tufts program seeks to create a soft-bodied robot that mimics the movements of a caterpillar.

In a scenario very reminiscent of classic sci-fi novels, researchers are developing robots that move a lot like organic creatures, reports the New York Times.

Although robots are becoming more ubiquitous, the Biomimetic Technologies for Soft-bodied Robots project at Tufts University is working on creating a robo-caterpillar that will move like a real caterpillar.

The hope is that the soft-bodied robot would someday be able to enter places that are hard or dangerous for humans to reach, such as land mines, machinery and even the human body.

Soft-bodied robots are basically hollow tubes with "muscles" that consist of wire springs made from shape-memory alloy. Electrical current heats the springs, causing them to constrict; once the current stops, the elastic skin stretches the wire back into its resting shape.

"It's almost childish, the simplicity of the design," says Dr. Barry Trimmer, an associate professor in the biology department at the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts.

The experiments are in the preliminary stages. So far, researchers have gotten a wave to propagate across a robot's body; that wave picks up the feet in a way that already resembles the foot motion of a real caterpillar. Although the programming that necessitates this movement is complex, researchers are hoping for accurate replication of a caterpillar's movement in the near future.

Other scientists are using animals as inspirations for robots: salamanders, snakes, cockroaches, fish and geckos - just to name a few. Scientists have created has an artificial lobster, a robotic arm that moves a bit like an elephant's trunk, and an octopus's arm.

"It's a hot topic," said Auke Jan Ijspeert, head of the Biologically Inspired Robotics Group at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. I'm basically amazed by nature," he said, "and how impressive animals are at solving the problem of locomotion control."

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