Engineers Develop Flexible Robot That Can Twist and Turn

MIT researchers created a robot that can fit in tight spaces.
Donna Fuscaldo

Robots are swarming the floors of warehouses and manufacturing plants across the globe. They easily navigate through vast open areas. But when it comes to getting around in narrow spaces, they are at a disadvantage to humans.  Researchers haven't been able to perfect a robot that can pick up a box dropped behind a shelf 

That is, until now. Engineers at the Masshuttets Institue of Technology created a robot that is flexible enough to twist and turn and at the same time strong enough to haul heavy loads of boxes or supplies and provide enough force to assemble parts in spaces that are more confined. Even more helpful, the robot can retract and extend into different lengths and shapes depending on the job required. 


Robot was inspired by how plants grow 

“Think about changing the oil in your car,” says Harry Asada, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, in a press release announcing the robot. "Ater 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.” 

The researchers were inspired by how plants grow when developing the design for the robot that includes appendages. These robots have a gearbox that pulls a chain of interlocking blocks into the gearbox. The gears then lock the chains together and feed out the links unit by unit to form the rigid appendage. 

When it's locked and rigid it's strong enough to support a one-pound weight. The engineers said that if they attached a gripper to the gearbox the robot could grow enough to get around a tight space and apply enough torque to loosen a bolt or open a cap. 

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They presented their work at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) in Macau.

“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.”