Robot caterpillar can twist and crawl

The caterpillar-inspired origami robot points to the future where machines can grow and heal on demand.

Engineers at Princeton University and North Carolina State University have combined ancient paper folding techniques and modern materials to build a soft robot that can bend and twist with ease.

The robot is made out of modular, cylindrical segments, which can operate independently or jointly with each other. This enables the robot to move and steer, crawl forward and reverse, or pick up cargo and assemble into a longer unit.

“We have created a bio-inspired plug-and-play soft modular origami robot enabled by electrothermal actuation with highly bendable and adaptable heaters,” Glaucio Paulino, engineering professor at Princeton, said.

Paulino added: “This is a very promising technology with potential translation to robots that can grow, heal, and adapt on demand.”

The robot can assemble and split on the move, which means it can operate as a single system or a swarm, according to Tuo Zhao, another author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton.

“Each segment can be an individual unit, and they can communicate with each other and assemble on command,” Zhao said. “They can separate easily, and we use magnets to connect them.”

An origami form called a Kreslin pattern was used to build the robot caterpillar, allowing each segment to twist into a flattened disk and expand back into a cylinder. This twisting and expanding motion is the basis for the robot’s ability to crawl and change direction.

Researchers at North Carolina State University developed the mechanism to control the bending and folding motions used to drive and steer the robot – one of the most challenging aspects of the work.

Liquid crystal elastomer and polyimide, two materials that shrink or expand differently when heated, were used as a solution by combining them into thin strips along the creases of the Kresling pattern.

A thin stretchable heater made of silver nanowire network was installed along each fold. By calibrating the current that heats the control strips, the researchers were able to precisely control the folding and bending that drives and steers the robot.

“In this work we achieved localized, sharp folding to actuate the origami pattern. This effective actuation method can be generally applied to origami structures with creases for soft robotics,” said Shuang Wu, a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State.

The researchers said that they were now working to improve the robot’s limited speed and increase the locomotion, as well as experiment with different shapes, patterns, and instability to improve both the speed and steering.

The research paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. Other robotic research taking inspiration from the natural world include a jellyfish-like robot gripper and remotely-controlled "biobots" powered by mouse cells.

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