Sunday, August 12, 2012

The 'Meshworm' soft robot inches its way along

Nature is often a source for inspiration for researchers, and thus we have what scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Seoul National University are calling the Meshworm. Dubbed by some "the world's most disgusting robot," MIT prefers to call it a "soft autonomous robot."

The Meshworm, introduced Friday, inches along like an earthworm, or a sea cucumber (yes, despite the name, a sea cucumber is an animal), even. The method, dubbed peristalsis, involves alternately squeezing and stretching muscles along the length of an earthworm's body. It's the same way our esophagus works, squeezing muscles to push food to the stomach (catastalsis is a similar intestinal muscle process).

The Meshworm has a body made up of a flexible tube, with a thin wire "muscle" made of a nickel and titanium shape-memory alloy wound around it to create worm-like segments (see the embedded video).

To come up with the design, researchers studied earthworms and how their musculature functions.

Why bother with such a design? Scientists wanted to examine this type of locomotion because these types of animals are virtually unstoppable, even over extremely rough terrain. Also, a "soft robot" would be able to navigate through tight spaces.

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The paper’s authors are Sangbae Kim, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, graduate student Sangok Seok, post-doctoral Cagdas Denizel Onal at MIT, associate professor Robert J. Wood at Harvard, assistant professor Kyu-Jin Cho Ph.D. ’07 of Seoul National University, and Daniela Rus, professor of computer science and engineering and director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

As far as being the most disgusting robot ever developed, we don't find it disturbing at all. However, it does bring back (shudder) memories of the scene in Peter Jackson's King Kong with the giant leech / worm things, in the canyon. We could have done without that scene.

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