Navigating complex surfaces is a no-brainer for this robot

This soft robot uses "physical intelligence" to navigate complicated surfaces without the need for human or computer intervention.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Asymmetrical soft robots
Asymmetrical soft robots

Jie Yin, NC State University 

Engineers have developed a "brainless" soft robot that can effortlessly traverse difficult terrain. 

This breakthrough comes from North Carolina State University researchers, who previously created a soft robot capable of navigating basic mazes without the need for human or computer intervention. 

They have now improvised on this existing design to allow the robot to travel over complicated surfaces. 

“We’ve developed a new soft robot that is capable of turning on its own, allowing it to make its way through twisty mazes, even negotiating its way around moving obstacles. And it’s all done using physical intelligence, rather than being guided by a computer,” said Jie Yin, co-corresponding author of this new paper, in an official release. 

Navigates on the basis of "physical intelligence"

This new and advanced soft robot is based on the concept of “physical intelligence,” which refers to objects whose behavior is shaped with respect to structural design and the materials they are composed of. This feature allows it to navigate autonomously, without the need for guidance from their developers or even their computers. 

The soft robot prototype comprises “ribbon-like liquid crystal elastomers.” 

According to the official release, when these robots are positioned on a surface at least 131 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Celsius), a segment of the ribbon in touch with the surface compresses while the portion of the ribbon exposed to air remains unaffected. This contraction property leads to rolling movement. Hence, the higher the surface temperature, the quicker the robot rolls.

The robot has an asymmetrical design

The structure of the robot boasts an asymmetrical design, which means it is divided into two distinct parts.

One half consists of a twisted ribbon that stretches in a straight line, while the other is a tightly twisted ribbon that spirals like a staircase. Due to its uneven design, one end of the robot applies greater force to the ground compared to the other end.

“The concept behind our new robot is fairly simple: because of its asymmetrical design, it turns without having to come into contact with an object. So, while it still changes directions when it does come into contact with an object – allowing it to navigate mazes – it cannot get stuck between parallel objects. Instead, its ability to move in arcs allows it to essentially wiggle its way free,” explained Yao Zhao, first author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at NC State.

The scientists put its soft robot's navigation skills to the test by making it traverse through several difficult mazes, such as those with moving walls, as well as areas narrower than its own body dimensions. They tested the new robot design on a metal surface and in sand.

The need for soft robots that can travel on rough surfaces is expected to rise in the near future. Because of their distinctive form and characteristics, they have a wide range of applications in a variety of sectors, including search and rescue operations, space exploration, biological research, and even the creation of wearable electronics.