It’s relatively easy for robots to navigate from one place to another in open areas, not so much though in tight or confined spaces. Imagine a robot that has to carry out tasks such as reaching for a product at the back of a stocked shelf or one that has to maneuver inside of a wall, and you get the idea. Engineers from MIT have solved those issues by designing a robot that can grow like a plant using a chain-like flexible appendage.
Known as the “growing robot,” the construct is flexible, capable of twisting and turning in any configuration, and remains rigid enough to handle heavy loads. Once the robot has completed its task, it can then retract its arm, and then extend it once again in different configurations when a new job is presented.
As mentioned earlier, the growing robot was inspired by the way plants grow, which transport nutrients to up to the tips from the root. The robot similarly does that by extending its arm, comprised of a 3D-printed chain of interlocking blocks, from a gearbox. The gears inside that box lock the chain blocks together when extending its appendage, and unlink them when retracted.
Engineers can program the robot to lock specific units together, leaving others unlinked to form those different shapes, which also allows it to grow in different directions. As the blockchain is fed into the box, it turns around a winch and passes through a pair of motorized gears that are programmed to lock the ones required to their neighboring units, thus creating a rigid structure.
The researchers state their robot can be outfitted with any number of hardware options, including sensors, grippers, and cameras, depending on the task. For example, the growing robot could be used to snake its way inside of an aircraft to tighten bolts or to identify leaks from a busted pipe inside of a wall.