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Meet Meshworm, the resilient earthworm robot from DARPA and MIT

August 13, 2012|By Deborah Netburn

In some ways, the soft little robot that can't be stopped is almost the most insidious robot we've ever seen.

But what's actually cool about Meshworm, and the reason that DARPA has supported the project, is because it shows one way to engineer a soft robotic system. And soft robotic systems, which are less rigid and more malleable than those fancy hunks of metal robots we're used to seeing, may be more capable of navigating rough terrain or maneuvering into tight spaces.

"You can throw [Meshworm] and it won't collapse," Sungbae Kim, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and one of the researchers on the project, said in a statement. "Most mechanical parts are rigid and fragile at small scale, but the parts in Meshworms are all fibrous and flexible."

Meshworm's movements are based on the principles of peristalsis -- the type of locomotion that allows earthworms, snails, and sea cucumbers to get from one place to another. It involves the alternating squeezing and stretching of muscles along the length of their bodies. Our own gastrointestinal tracts use the same type action to push food into our stomachs.

To mimic this movement, the researchers created a tubular body made of a soft polymer mesh that has similar properties to a spring. The artificial muscle groups were created using a nickel-titanium alloy that changes its flexibility based on temperature. To create the moving action, a circuit board and small battery in the mesh tube heat up one section of the titanium alloy, causing it to squeeze the tube and push the robot forward. 

The key here is that all parts of the robot are soft. "The muscles are soft, the body is soft ... we're starting to show some body-morphing capability," said Kim.

Huggable robots, we eagerly await your arrival. But we hope you're cuter than an earthworm.


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