Mind / Iron
by Bryan Bergeron, Editor ;
Newly Discovered Method Of Locomotion
May Have Implications In Robotics
Nature has done a great job evolving creatures to move efficiently on
the land, in the sea, and in the air. It’s one of the reasons biomemetics – the
science of mimicking nature – is a popular basis for robotics R&D. As I’ve
noted in previous editorials, one of the most fascinating and challenging
areas of robotic work is in developing ‘soft’ robots.
A robot that can squeeze through a small opening and deliver aid or at
least communications to someone trapped under rubble has obvious
advantages over, say, a crawler that can at best only scurry on top of the
rubble. Similarly, a robot that can squeeze under a door and deliver a lethal
gas or other payload to the occupants has obvious appeal to the
Department of Defense. However, to date, there haven’t been any clear
winners in the field of soft robots. Sure, in Japan it’s common to wrap the
angled metal and protrusions on robots with layers of soft foam to prevent
injury to humans. And there’s at least one self-deforming wheel that can roll
and jump over modest obstacles – with the caveat that power and
processing are supplied externally [Hiri].
What has the soft robotics field abuzz is the publication of
Visceral-Locomotory Pistoning in Crawling Caterpillars in July 2010 by scientists at
Tufts University and Virginia Tech [Simon]. Based on phase-contrast xray
imaging — which you can view on the web — the researchers determined
that the green tobacco hornworm caterpillar pumps its internal organs as
part of the propulsion process. This is a new form of propulsion that may
have a direct bearing on the future of soft robotics. As of this editorial, no
group has come forward with a robot that copies this rather odd form of
propulsion, but I assume several labs are working feverishly on the challenge.
I also don’t doubt that the patent office has a few related patents in their in-box. So, what’s there to do as a robotics enthusiast, other than wait for the
academic labs to secure funding and government grants? Well, soft robotics
isn’t limited to the well-to-do. You can go soft in any number of ways – from
using memory wire to pneumatics. I suggest pneumatics. And you needn’t
work on the microscopic scale. A foot-long caterpillar model with at least
one internal bladder should do. You’ll have to study the videos posted online
and then work to mimic the motion of the internal bladder of your model.
As a proof of concept, it’s usually best to keep the power and
processing separate from the platform. One of the advantages of using
pneumatics is the simplicity of actuators or bladders in a robot. No need to
worry about servos and control lines.Of course, it’s not as simple as that.
You have to construct the soft outer shell in a way that supports the robot
and allows mobility. I suspect there’s also something special going on with
the caterpillar’s feet. Again, you’ll have to study the video. The good thing is
that the videos — which are of excellent quality — are posted online.
manage to get
send in a video
or article, and
we’ll get the
word out. SV
Shinichi Hiri et al, Crawling and Jumping Soft Robots,
Dept Robotics, Ritsumeikan University, Japan.
Michael Simon et al, Visceral-Locomotory Pistoning in
Crawling Caterpillars, Cell Biology. 22 July, 2010. You can
see the abstract and video at www.cell.com/
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