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MIT Engineers Develop a Robot that Grows Like a Plant

Image courtesy of D'Arbeloff Lab YouTube Channel

Image courtesy of D'Arbeloff Lab YouTube Channel

A new robot that "grows" like a plant can make navigating around engines blocks and areas difficult for current tools to reach easier in the future.

Roboticists at MIT have developed a robot that’s supposed to grow like a plant. The machine features appendages that can twist and turn in any configuration and lift heavy loads at the same time.

Thanks to advancements in robotics, we now have automated machines shuttling heavy objects around in factories. While these robots navigate conveniently across open layouts, the machines often have a hard time performing in narrow spaces.

As a result, tasks such as snaking through a car’s engine to unscrew an oil cap are challenging for the current machines. But that’s about to change.

Inspired by the way plants grow, the engineers at MIT developed a robot with an extendable chain-like appendage that’s both rigid and flexible. As such, not only can the attachment reach into corners and lift heavy loads, but it can also retract when necessary to suit other tasks.

So, how does the robot work?

Developing a Growing Robot to Address the Last One-Foot Problem

The researchers developed the robot to address the “last one-foot problem” –  an engineering term that refers to the last foot of a robot’s exploratory mission.

It essentially means that the last step of a task is the most important one. Although a robot may have traveled a vast distance, the journey is meaningless if the robot cannot execute its mission on arrival.

In a statement, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, Harry Asada, said:

“Think about changing the oil in your car. After you open the engine roof, you have to be flexible enough to make sharp turns, left and right, to get to the oil filter, and then you have to be strong enough to twist the oil filter cap to remove it.”

To address this issue, the MIT team designed a box and fitted it with a system of gears and motors. It also included a bendy sequence of 3D printed plastic units that are interlocked in a bicycle chain manner.

That way, the chain could lock and curve in different ways to enable a wide range of motion. In a test, the MIT team got the robot to turn around an obstacle as it grew out of its base.

Read More: Researchers Invent Soft Robotic Device With Neurological Functions

Previous attempts to solve the last one-foot problem involved using soft, expanding balloon-like materials. However, the soft materials could not support useful tools like cameras, grippers, and other sensors.

With the flexible MIT growing robot, researchers now have a machine that’s sturdy and flexible enough to perform various tasks.

According to MIT graduate student Emily Kamienski:

“The space under the hood is relatively open, but it’s that last bit where you have to navigate around an engine block or something to get to the oil filter, that a fixed arm wouldn’t be able to navigate around. This robot could do something like that.”

Read More: MIT Team Develops Visual Navigation Tech For Delivery Robots

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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