FiloBot Creates Its Own Body Out of Foam, Inspired by Plant Growth
An innovative new robot designed by researchers at Cornell University is making waves in the field of robotics and bioinspired engineering. Dubbed “FiloBot,” this robot can self-assemble and grow in a vine-like manner, reaching towards sources of light much like a plant growing towards sunlight.
FiloBot was created in the Organic Robotics Lab at Cornell under the direction of Professor Hadas Kress-Gazit. The project was detailed in a paper published January 18th in the journal Science Robotics.
The researchers took inspiration from plants, which don’t have complex systems of muscles, sensors and controllers like animals do. Instead, plants can sense environmental stimuli and respond in order to grow and survive.
“The idea was to take natural growth processes as inspiration in designing robots,” says first author Dabiao Liu, a doctoral student in the field of mechanical engineering.
Foam Extruder Allows Robot to Construct Its Own Body
At the heart of FiloBot is an extruder mounted on a simple wheeled base, which can excrete a polyurethane foam that hardens into a flexible fiber. Essentially, the robot can 3D print its own body out of customizable materials.
As the foam fiber is extruded, it pushes the robot base along, allowing it to “grow” in a straight line. But when FiloBot senses light via a small camera and software controller, it turns towards that light source, just as a vine might curve towards sunlight filtering through a forest canopy.
“The robot can continuously sense its surrounding environment and respond by growing in a particular way to achieve different goals,” says Liu.
By growing in this plant-inspired manner, FiloBot is able to construct a potentially kilometers-long body through pathways that would be difficult if not impossible for a standard robot with an extruder “arm” to maneuver through.
Applications Include Exploration, Environmental Monitoring
FiloBot demonstrates what’s possible when researchers apply natural phenomena as inspiration in designing self-sustaining robotics.
Possible applications include sending FiloBot into tight spaces that can’t otherwise be explored, such underground tunnels or rubble from a collapsed building. As it grows and explores, FiloBot could potentially map out these unknown environments.
Another use might be for environmental monitoring, where FiloBot could grow itself high up into trees to study the microclimate conditions and ecology. The organic foam material lends itself well to being outfitted with sensors during the extrusion process.
“We envision FiloBot to be capable of growth behaviors that enable inspection and monitoring tasks wherever we want in wild spaces,” says Liu.
Early prototypes of FiloBot grow relatively slowly, at 6 centimeters (2.4 inches) per minute. But the researchers believe that with the right materials and chemical reactions, future versions could achieve speeds similar to the growth rates of plant life.
Challenges Include Energy Supply, Navigation
While FiloBot in its current form represents an exciting proof of concept, some key challenges need to be addressed before it becomes a practical tool for real-world applications.
At present, FiloBot requires an umbilical cord supplying electrical power, acids, and bases to produce the rigid foam material. Developing an onboard chemical supply and delivery system is the next step towards fully untethered function.
There is also the difficulty of steering the robot with precision through the most useful pathways after the initial straight growth phase. More advanced modeling and AI algorithms are needed to maneuver FiloBot based on environmental scans.
“How do you carefully control the growth to make sure the extension is going to the right places? That’s a challenge we’re still working on,” says Professor Kress-Gazit.
|30 cm x 56 cm x 29 cm (initial base), grows to arbitrary length
|6 cm of growth per min
|Soft polyurethane foam fiber
|Camera, light detection
|Currently tethered electrical & chemical lines
The FiloBot team remains optimistic these obstacles can be worked out through ongoing iterations on the initial concept. Similar solutions from nature may provide clues, where plants fine-tuned effective growth systems through eons of evolutionary trial-and-error.
“This project highlights the beauty of science and engineering,” says Professor Kress-Gazit. “We took inspiration from the natural world, used creativity to design something completely new, and will continue improving on our creation.”
Next Steps May Include Hybrid Robot “Plants”
Looking to the future, FiloBot researchers speculate it may be possible for both robots and living plants to be jointly cultivated as complementary biomachine systems.
For example, real vines could be grown into certain desired shapes, with FiloBot then extruding its own fiber material around those vines for structural enhancement. The two merged lifeforms would combine natural resilience and embedded sensors from the FiloBot with the regenerative abilities of the vines themselves.
This concept of uniting robotics, synthetic biology and materials science represents an exciting new paradigm known as “hybrid biointegrated systems.” Through such biomimetic merging between nature and technology, designs can potentially evolve with entirely new attributes surpassing those of the individual origins.
As FiloBot progenitor Hadas Kress-Gazit notes, “These are very small steps in thinking of robots and biology together in a different way.” But with each discovery in this groundbreaking field, a clearer picture emerges of robotics existing seamlessly within lively, growing ecosystems.
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