Researchers have developed an innovative robot that can grow and extend itself like a vine to navigate narrow spaces. Dubbed “Filobot,” this technology takes inspiration from plants and could have wide-ranging applications from search and rescue to environmental monitoring.
Overview of Filobot
Filobot consists of 3D-printed lattice materials that can unfurl and reshape themselves dynamically. Developed by a team at Cornell University, Filobot contains shape-memory alloy actuators that respond to heat. When activated by an electrical current, these actuators enable the robot to alter its form in ways that resemble plant growth and movement.
This allows Filobot to elongate its body in specified directions as it crawls across surfaces. The lattice materials give structure while remaining flexible enough to extend and curve around obstacles. So far, prototypes have grown to over seven times their initial one-meter length.
“It’s quite exciting because the robot moves by itself and decides when and where to go,” says lead researcher Hadas Kress-Gazit.
How Filobot Works
Filobot contains a modular design with repeating units that form its extendable body. This backbone features “morphogenetic modules” that can maneuver themselves into different formations.
Here is a summary of Filobot’s main systems and functions:
|Motors and sensors
|miniature servo motors drive movement while various sensors feed data back to the control systems
|custom printed circuit boards translate sensor inputs into activation signals for the shape-memory actuators and servo motors
|thin wires supply electrical power along the length of the robot
The key components that facilitate growth and reshaping are the panels of laser-cut shape memory alloy material surrounding the structural cells. Each panel contains folded “hinges” that can alter orientation in response to resistive heating signals.
By coordinating the timing of these heating activations, programmers can induce elongation, bending, rotation, and other dynamic movements. This allows Filobot to optimize its geometry for the task and terrain at hand.
Potential Applications for Filobot
Filobot’s capacity to alter its body adaptively makes it well suited for navigating the complex geometries found in collapsed buildings, underground tunnels, dense forests, and other restrictive settings.
Several promising applications could emerge from this technology:
Search and Rescue
Filobot’s snake-like figure and sensitivity to stimuli resembles a living plant’s ability to seek out light and nutrition while avoiding hazards. This could enable it to wriggle through constricted spaces in search of survivors under rubble or down mine shafts. The modular design also allows for later components to transport cameras and other gear.
By continuing to phototropically grow toward light and moisture, Filobot could spread itself widely across areas otherwise hard to access by humans or drones. This could facilitate detailed monitoring of ecological changes with weather sensing modules along its structure. The lattice composition also causes minimal harm to living plants as it crawls through vegetation.
Similarly, Filobot could wind itself through aging pipes, cables, and containment vessels located in confined spaces. Outfitted with proper diagnostic tools, it may detect leaks, blockages, or other issues demanding maintenance. This could significantly improve safety and efficiency.
Outlook Going Forward
Current prototypes still have limitations in speed, strength, and versatility. However, researchers aim to improve the technology with funding from the National Science Foundation.
Goals for further development include:
- Increasing durability and weather resistance
- Enabling branching growth at modular junctions
- Adding gripping capacity to climb rugged terrain
- Developing a high-level programming framework for more autonomous functionality
As Filobot matures, we may soon see plant-inspired robots spreading through all sorts of cramped built environments and densely vegetated habitats. This technology highlights the many design principles and adaptive traits still left to discover in the natural world around us.
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