MIT engineers have designed a new type of flexible, sturdy robot that can grow and extend in any direction.
It features a chain-like appendage flexible enough to twist and turn in any necessary configuration, yet rigid enough to support heavy loads or apply torque to assemble parts in tight spaces.
The engineers note that when the task is complete, the robot can retract the appendage and extend it again, at a different length and shape, to suit the next task.
Factory and warehouse robots still fail when carrying out tasks confined to narrow spaces.
They have a tough time reaching for a product at the back of a cluttered shelf, or snaking around a car’s engine parts to unscrew an oil cap.
This could all change thanks to MIT’s new growing robot.
The robot’s appendage is inspired by the way plants grow, which involves the transport of nutrients, in a fluidized form, up to the plant’s tip. There, they are converted into solid material to produce, bit by bit, a supportive stem.
Likewise, the robot consists of a ‘rowing point’ or gearbox that pulls a loose chain of interlocking blocks into the box.
Gears in the box then lock the chain units together and feed the chain out, unit by unit, as a rigid appendage.
The engineers envision that grippers, cameras, and other sensors could be mounted onto the robot’s gearbox, enabling it to meander through an aircraft’s propulsion system and tighten a loose screw – or to reach into a shelf and grab a product without disturbing the organization of surrounding inventory, among other tasks.
The design of the new robot is an offshoot of MIT professor Harry Asada’s work in addressing the ‘last one-foot problem’ – an engineering term referring to the last step, or foot, of a robot’s task or exploratory mission.
While a robot may spend most of its time traversing open space, the last foot of its mission may involve more nimble navigation through tighter, more complex spaces to complete a task.
Image and content: MIT News