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Engineers Create a Robot That Can Move Like an Inchworm

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Engineering researchers from the University of Toronto have developed a tiny robot that can move similar to an inchworm. This newly developed technology can impact various industries including aviation and smart technology. 

The research was published in Scientific Reports. 

The group of engineer researchers includes Professor Hani Naguib. The team focuses on smart materials, especially electrothermal actuators (ETAs). ETAs are devices that are made of certain polymers that are able to be programmed so that they physically respond to electrical or thermal changes. They can be programmed so that they mimic muscle reflexes, and they can react physically to temperature by tightening up in the cold and relaxing when warm. 

Professor Naguib and the team of engineers are using this new technology in robotics, and they are developing soft robots that are able to crawl and curl like an inchworm. Another area where they will be important is in the manufacturing industry. The soft robots could replace certain metal-plated bots that exist now. 

“Right now, the robots you’ll find in industry are heavy, solid and caged off from workers on the factory floor, because they pose safety hazards,” explains Naguib.

“But the manufacturing industry is modernizing to meet demand. More and more, there’s an emphasis on incorporating human-robot interactions,” he says. “Soft, adaptable robots can leverage that collaboration.”

The study of responsive material has been around for a long time, but the group of engineers discovered a new way of programming them to come up with the inch-worm robotic movements. 

According to PhD student and the paper’s lead author, Yu-Chen (Gary) Sun, “Existing research documents the programming of ETAs from a flat resting state. The shape-programmability of a two-dimensional structure is limited, so the response is just a bending motion.”

The team used a thermal-induced, stress-relaxation and curing method in order to create an ETA that has a three-dimensional resting state. This brings an entire new set of possible shapes and movements. 

“What’s also novel is the power required to induce the inchworm motion. Ours is more efficient than anything that has existed in research literature so far,” says Sun.

According to Professor Naguib, this new field of robotics can completely revolutionize many industries including security, aviation, surgery, and wearable electronics. 

In situations where humans could be in danger — a gas leak or a fire — we could outfit a crawling robot with a sensor to measure the harmful environment,” explains Naguib. “In aerospace, we could see smart materials being the key to next-generation aircrafts with wings that morph.”

The first applications will likely be within the wearable technology field. 

“We’re working to apply this material to garments. These garments would compress or release based on body temperature, which could be therapeutic to athletes,” says Naguib. The team is also studying whether smart garments could be beneficial for spinal cord injuries.

The team of researchers will now look towards making the responsive crawling motion faster, and they will focus on new configurations. 

“In this case, we’ve trained it to move like a worm,” he says. “But our innovative approach means we could train robots to mimic many movements — like the wings of a butterfly.”