A Curling, Climbing Robot That Acts Like A Plant

Something new in the world of robots. This robot can curl and climb like a climbing houseplant. Researchers at the IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia say they have created the first soft robot that mimics plant tendrils.

The research team, led by researcher Barbara Mazzolai, says that this climbing robot could inspire the development of new wearable devices, such as soft braces that could actively morph their shape their the person’s limb.

Mazzolai says the team took their inspiration from plants and how they move. “Plants have associated their movement to growth, and in doing so they continuously adapt their morphology to the external environment,” added Mazzolai.

“Even the plants organs exposed to the air are able to perform complex movements such as, for example, the closure of the leaves in carnivorous plants or the growth of tendrils in climbing plants, which are able to coil around external supports (and uncoil, if the supports are not adequate) to favor the growth of the plant itself,” said Mazzolai.

Mazzolai says the team looked at how plants exploit water transport inside their cells, tissues and organs to move, and then they replicated it in an artificial tendril.

This curling silver soft robot is made of a flexible PET tube that contains a liquid with electrically charged particles. By using a 1.3 volt battery these particles are attracted and immobilized on the surface of flexible electrodes at the bottom of the tendril. And their movement causes the movement of the liquid which moves the robot.

“We exploited osmosis to activate reversible movements,” said Mazzolai. “We succeeded by using a common battery and flexible fabrics and this suggests the possibility of creating soft robots that can easily adapt to their surrounding environment. We think this creates a potential for enhanced and safe interactions with objects or living beings.”

Mazzaloi says she hopes that this discovery will lay the ground work for new applications that include wearable technologies to the development of flexible robotic arms for exploration. The challenge of imitating plants’ ability to move in changing and unstructured environments has just begun.

Mazzolai, who is a biologist with a PhD in microsystems engineering, and her research team are also in a new project called GrowBot, funded by the European Commission. Growbot is working towards developing a robot able to manage its growth and adapt to its surrounding environment and recognize the surfaces it attaches to, just like biological climbing plants.

Mazzolai was listed in 2015 among the 25 most influential women in robotics by RoboHub.

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