In contrast to legged robots inspired by locomotion in animals, this project explores robotic locomotion inspired by plant growth. Specifically, the project creates the foundation for classes of robotic systems that grow in a manner similar to vines. Within its accessible region, a vine robot provides not only sensing, but also a physical conduit -- such as a water hose that grows to a fire, or an oxygen tube that grows to a trapped disaster victim. The project will demonstrate vine-like robots able to configure or weave themselves into three-dimensional objects and structures such as ladders, antennae for communication, and shelters. These novel co-robots aim to improve human safety, health, and well-being at a lower cost than conventional robots achieving similar outcomes. Because of their low cost, vine robots offer exceptional educational opportunities; the project will include creation and testing of inexpensive educational modules for K-12 students.
This work broadens the concept of bio-inspired robots from animals to plants, the concept of locomotion from point-to-point movement to growth. In contrast to traditional terrestrial moving robots that tend to be based on the animal modality of repeated intermittent contacts with a surface, the vine modality begins with a root, harboring power and logic, and extends using growth, increasing permanent contacts throughout the process. This project will demonstrate a soft robot capable of growing over 100 times in length, withstanding being stepped on, extending through gaps a quarter of its height, climbing stairs and vertical walls, and navigating over rough, slippery, sticky and aquatic terrain. The design adopts a bio-inspired strategy of moving material through the core to the tip, allowing the established part of the robotic vine to remain stationary with respect to the environment. A thin-walled tube fills with air as it grows, allowing the vine robot to be initially stored in a small volume at its base, and to extend very large distances when controllably deployed. Mechanical modeling and new design tools will enable the development of task-specific vine robots for search and rescue, reconfigurable communication antennas, and construction. The paradigm of achieving movement and construction through growth will produce new technologies for integrated actuation, sensing, planning, and control; novel principles and software tools for robot design; and humanitarian applications that push the boundaries of collaborative robotics.