‘Super-stretchy’ worm robots could be used in construction

A team of engineers from the University of Glasgow has developed ‘super-stretchy wormlike’ robots which could be used in construction.

It is hoped the breakthrough could lead to a new generation of robots capable of autonomously exploring difficult-to-reach places.

The soft, wriggly ‘roboworms’ can stretch up to nine times their own length and are capable of a form of proprioception, which is the method by which biological organisms such as worms perceive their position in space.

The university said the ability has not yet been demonstrated before in the field of soft robotics, and will allow the robot worms to squeeze into tight spots that their conventionally rigid robot counterparts cannot reach.

The development builds on previous research from the learning institution’s Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) group, which has found novel ways to embed flexible electronics into deformable surfaces.

The breakthroughs allowed them to build intrinsic strain sensors into the wormlike robots, which measure around 4.5 centimetres in length. They are covered in ‘skin’ made from a form of stretchy plastic called Ecoflex and a graphite paste developed by the team.

Tiny permanent magnets attached at either end of the robots’ tubular bodies help them to move along a metal surface. The sensors in their skin help them ‘sense’ 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, moving it forward.

Alongside construction, the university said it is hoped that the robots can find applications in mining and also in disaster relief to search for survivors trapped in rubble.

Professor Ravinder Dahiya, of the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering and lead of the BEST group, said, “Proprioception is a vital characteristic of many forms of biological life, and scientists have long been inspired to try and develop engineered systems which mimic this ability. Our bio-inspired robots are a step towards creating soft, flexible robot systems capable of the infinite directions of movement that nature has created in inchworms and earthworms.

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

The team’s paper, titled ‘Bio-inspired Inchworm and Earthworm like Soft Robots with Intrinsic Strain Sensing’, is published in Advanced Intelligent Systems. The research was supported by funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the European Commission.