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Will Tomorrow's Robots Move Like Snakes?

By MIT News

September 17, 2014

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Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have developed a soft robotic arm, inspired by octopus tentacles, that can snake through a pipe-like environment without a human operator.

The researchers note the system is part of the field of soft robotics, which has the potential to be safer, more resilient, and more efficient for certain tasks than rigid-bodied robots.

For the soft robotic arm, the researchers developed algorithms to determine the body curvature needed for the robot to make a wide range of different motions. The robotic arm is so soft that a traditional motor shaft cannot be attached. Instead, the researchers designed hollow, expandable channels on both sides of the arm that, when pressurized with air, strain on the elastic silicone and force it to change shape like a balloon.

The next version of the arm will be equipped with a finger-gripper that can pick up and place objects.

"Designing away all the hard components forces us to think about the more difficult questions," says MIT doctoral candidate Andrew Marchese. "Is it possible to do useful manipulation with a robot that’s as soft as chewing gum?"

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