Wiggly roboworms can sense own position and movement in space

6 Sep 2021

Image: © metelevan/Stock.adobe.com

Scientists used magnets, sensors and a graphite paste to work towards the ‘infinite directions of movement that nature has created’ in worms.

Researchers from the University of Glasgow have developed robotic worms that could hold the key to squeezing through tight spots that other, rigid robots just aren’t able to manage.

The exciting aspect of these roboworms is that they possess technology that replicates proprioception. Also known as kinaesthesia, this is the body’s ability to sense its own movement and location in space.

“Proprioception is a vital characteristic of many forms of biological life, and scientists have long been inspired to try and develop engineered systems which mimic this ability,” said Ravinder Dahiya, professor at the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering and leader of the group that designed the worm.

“Our bioinspired robots are a step towards creating soft, flexible robot systems capable of the infinite directions of movement that nature has created in inchworms and earthworms.”

The technology for this invention comes from previous research by the university’s Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies group, which has innovated new ways of embedding electronics into surfaces.

This is how the group built strain sensors into the worm-like robots. These roboworms are approximately five centimetres in length, but when extended can stretch to nine times that measurement. They are covered in a skin made from a stretchy plastic and a graphite paste that was developed by the team.

By attaching tiny magnets to the top and bottom of the roboworm’s body, the researchers were able to generate movement along a metal surface. The embedded sensors in the robot’s skin were able to follow the worm’s movement by following the changes in electrical resistance of the graphite paste. When the resistance reached a preset value, the body would contract again, moving it forward.

The team hopes that this creation could help develop robots that are suited for navigating spaces in mining, construction and emergency services, like reaching survivors trapped in rubble from an earthquake.

The team also said it could lead to the development of better prosthetics – a field that is constantly evolving new and innovative ways to advance artificial limb technology.

“The ability of soft robots like these to adapt to their surroundings through seamlessly embedded stretchable sensors could help autonomous robots more effectively navigate through even the most challenging environments,” said Dahiya.

Sam Cox was a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news