Hollywood has provided us with countless post-apocalyptic scenarios, in which robotic technological advances have led to the eventual callous overthrow of their makers. However, recent research released by Stanford University seems to suggest that these ideas may not be as fictitious as they seem; in fact, you could be forgiven for mistaking the information presented as strikingly similar to the start of one of these motion pictures. The creature assembled by scientists in this lab seems to almost be a mash-up of the beasts in Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids, and Garland’s Ex Machina.

The product is a sentient robot that moves via the sprouting and creeping of a tendril; it shoots out its vine in a technique that provides an alternative form of movement to locomotion. The idea itself was founded upon observations made within the natural world, of the methods used by fungal branches and trailing plants. The robot, constructed and demonstrated as a prototype, consists predominantly of a tube made of a soft material folded inside itself (unfolding via a process called eversion).

In a similar motion to that of the water-snake (a children’s toy popular in the late 90s), the tube pushes itself through its own tip, allowing it to grow to up to 1000% its original size. Inflation at the stationary end by pressurised air causes eversion (the process of turning inside-out) to take place. Growth at the tip occurs in one direction, depending on a series of informed decisions; these decisions are made based on numerous images that are obtained from a camera located at the tip of the robot. The main body of this extended tube is fixed in position, allowing the robot to travel along convoluted pathways based upon complex choices.

The implications of this union of software and movement have not yet been thoroughly explored. However, it has been proposed that in time, this research could be utilised in search-and-rescue missions.

One member of Okamura’s lab, a graduate student named Joey Greer, described the challenges that needed to be overcome during the development of this robot. “Using a camera to guide the robot to a target is a difficult problem, because the camera imagery needs to be processed at the same rate that it is produced. A lot of work went into designing algorithms that both ran fast, and produced results that were accurate enough for controlling the soft robot.”

The implications of this union of software and movement have not yet been thoroughly explored. However, it has been proposed that in time, this research could be utilised in search-and-rescue missions. In obstacle course trials, the function of this robot has proven itself to be extremely durable; even when punctured, function is not disturbed. As such, even the roughest terrain can be conquered by the machine. Upon reaching a hypothetical patient, the robot has the ability to pass on life-saving supplies via its tip. In cases where a patient is trapped and dehydration is a threat, the robot could be used to move water into these remote spaces.

The lightweight nature of the tubing means that the robot will not disturb the state of a patient who may be severely injured. However, make no mistake – this is not to say that the machine cannot undertake more substantial labour, too. Unlike most robots, Okamura’s creation posses a fixed energy supply, making it comparatively more powerful. Even within its prototype state, the robot can lift over 100kg! The additional replacement of pressurised air with a more condensed liquid has the potential to increase the number and type of heavy duty tasks that the robot can perform.

It is unlikely that this technology could be used to fight fires or aid brain surgery in its current state. Nonetheless, the fact remains that these ideas are less in the realms of fiction than we may have initially assumed them to be. This innovation, inspired by the ingenious research of countless labs worldwide, is of the utmost importance if we are to continue to overcome the varied trials that our society faces today.

Freddie Metherell
Freddie has just completed his degree in biomedicine, and is now a post-graduate student at the University of Warwick. With a curiosity into most scientific fields, from astronomy to ichthyology, if data has been fit to a hypothesis, he is always keen to delve deeper. His interests include football, birds, and bees.

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