Inspired by Plants, Engineers Produce the First Ever Tendril-Like Robot Able to Climb

Researchers have engineered the first soft robot capable of curling and climbing like a plant tendril.

It seems there is nothing robotics cannot do these days. From jumping parkour to opening doors, robots are increasingly becoming good at taking on human skills. But what about plant ones?

Inspired by plants

Inspired by the latter, researchers at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia have produced the first soft robot capable of climbing by itself. They achieved this by mimicking the motions of plant tendrils.

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More specifically, they designed it to imitate the physical principles responsible for water transport in plants. The development is no doubt exciting and even more so if you consider the team's lead researcher.

"Barbara Mazzolai was listed in 2015 among the 25 most influential women in robotics by RoboHub, and in 2012 she coordinated the EU-funded project "Plantoid" that brought to the first plant robot worldwide," says the institute's press release.

Let's just say we find it ingenious enough to be inspired by a species whose movements are so slow, but that is exactly what Mazzolai's team did, and they produced the first ever tendril-like robot capable of climbing.

"Researchers took inspiration from plants and their movement. Indeed, being unable to escape (unlike animals), plants have associated their movement to growth, and in doing so they continuously adapt their morphology to the external environment," noted the institute's announcement.

Natural mechanisms

To achieved this the researchers studied the natural mechanisms of plants' cellular water transport, a hydraulic principle called "osmosis." They then used a simple mathematical model to determine the right size of the robot to ensure too slow movements were avoided.

They concluded the robot should have the shape of a small tendril in order to be capable of reversible movements. The outcome is a soft robot made of a flexible PET tube filled with a liquid with electrically charged particles (ions) and a 1.3 Volt battery to attract and immobilize the ions.

"The possibility of exploiting osmosis to activate reversible movements has been demonstrated for the first time. The fact of having succeeded by using a common battery and flexible fabrics, moreover, suggests the possibility of creating soft robots easily adaptable to the surrounding environment, thus with potential for enhanced and safe interactions with objects or living beings," says the release.

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Now, Mazzolai and her team are working on a related new project, called "GrowBot", funded by the European Commission under the FET Proactive program. The work seeks to achieve "the development of a robot that is able to manage its growth and adaptation to the surrounding environment with the capability to recognize the surfaces to which it attaches, or the supports to which it anchors."

The research is published in Nature Communications

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