Have you ever watched an earthworm crawl? It bunches up its segments in waves that ripple the length of its body. This series of contractions is called peristalsis, and is similar to the way that we move food down our throats. Researchers at Case Western Reserve have designed a “soft” robot that can change its shape, and use peristalsis as a means of movement.
Instead of separate segments, the robot consists of helixes that form a braided mesh body. The clever design relies on a single motor mounted at one end, and the powered crank creates the sequential motion that results in rapid and effective motion. The researchers are now working on mechanisms to steer the robot, and to control the body shape so that it can squeeze through small places.
The design can be scaled for a variety of applications. It could be valuable for autonomous inspection of pipelines. It could also be used to search through rubble in the search for survivors in collapsed buildings and other disasters. And very small models could be used as an alternative to surgical procedures that now require catheters. A soft robot could operate in blood vessels or other tube-shaped body parts, using wireless connections instead of being tethered to a catheter. It has the possibility of making a variety of new medical treatments possible.