This Vine-like robot can grow toward heat and extinguish fires

Future iterations of the robot combined with hoses can be used to extinguish fires.
Deena Theresa
A pneumatic everting robot grows forward and toward the right where the heat source is located.
A pneumatic everting robot grows forward and toward the right where the heat source is located.

Charles Xiao et al 

Bio-inspired robots and soft robotics have become popular in the past few decades. Adapted from biological organisms to develop new and innovative technologies, biorobots are known for their sensory abilities and higher mobility and flexibility. Now, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have created a "vine-like" robot inspired by vines and their ability to detect and move toward sources of moisture.

Charles Xiao and his colleagues have created a two-meter-long device with plenty of segments. Unlike vines, this tendril-like bot grows toward the direction of heat, reported New Scientist.

The basic concept for the actuator is based on the pleated pneumatic artificial muscle. Comprised of segments, the bot is made of a pair of thin Mylar bags filled with a refrigerant fluid called Novec 7000. The bags are separated by insulating, low-density polyethylene. Each sleeve, divided into segments, can expand while shrinking in overall length. This happens when their internal refrigerant liquid evaporates past 93F.

The vine-like robot can move around simple obstacles

So, how does the bot move toward the heat source? 

When the warmed side's segment expands, and contracts, the portion on the other side lengthens in tandem. The researchers stress that their robot can move around simple obstacles and bend backward to ward off heat. The robot also has eversion capabilities, which means it can extend or unfurl from its interior, New Scientist reported.

The researchers state that their root-inspired robot is a big step in incorporating material-level sensing and actuation into vine-inspired robots and soft robots. "Future robots that build on the presented concepts could provide enhanced capabilities in search and rescue and firefighting applications," they wrote.

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They also have plans to create new iterations.

"In the current iteration, the response of the robot is relatively slow. A heat source, such as a fire, would have a much higher heat flux at an equivalent or even greater distance, resulting in much faster response times. Materials with higher melting temperatures would need to be used in such cases. Another possible variation of the proposed design is to use carbon dioxide as the working fluid. Carbon dioxide absorbs strongly at the wavelengths emitted by fire, meaning the robot could selectively sense fire rather than other hot objects," they write in the paper.

The article was released in arXiv on January 18.

Study Abstract:

Soft and bio-inspired robotics promise to imbue robots with capabilities found in the natural world. However, many of these biological capabilities are yet to be realized. For example, current vine- and root-inspired everting robots rely on centralized control outside of the robotic tendril to process sensor information and command actuation. In contrast, roots in nature control growth direction in a distributed manner, with all control, sensing, and actuation local. Such distributed control is useful for robustness and parallelization particularly while the plants search for resources (light, water, favorable soil, etc.). Here we present an approach for exploiting these biological behaviors via a thermotropic vine-inspired robot; the device uses local, material-level sensing, actuation, and control embedded in its skin to grow toward a source of heat. We present a basic modeling of the concept, design details, and experimental results showing its behavior in varied heat fields. Our simple device advances vine-inspired everting robots by offering a new, distributed method of shape control, and could lead to eventual applications such as highly parallelized robots for fire-fighting or search-and-rescue operations.

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