Walk like this, said the caterpillar to the robot

April 28, 2011

GoQBot (credit: Tufts University)

The new generation of search and rescue soft robots can wiggle their way into some tight spaces, but as for speed, not so much.

So Tufts University researchers decided to make their bots imitate caterpillars, some of which have the extraordinary ability to rapidly curl themselves into a wheel and propel themselves away from predators — really fast.

It’s called “ballistic rolling— one of the fastest wheeling behaviors in nature.

Power wheeling

The DARPA-funded researchers designed a 10cm-long soft-bodied robot, called GoQBot, made out of silicone rubber and actuated by embedded shape memory alloy coils. Why GoQBot? Because it forms a “Q” shape before rolling away at an impressive half-meter per-second speed.

In fact, the GoQBot can change its body conformation in less than 100 ms, using ballistic rolling — the same kind of nonlinear muscle coupling used in caterpillars.

(The researchers also discovered why caterpillars don’t use the ballistic roll more often as a default mode of transport: it’s only effective on smooth surfaces, demands a large amount of power, and often ends unpredictably.)

“GoQBot demonstrates a solution by reconfiguring its body and could therefore enhance several robotic applications such as urban rescue, building inspection, and environmental monitoring.” lead author Huai-Ti Lin from the Department of Biology, Tufts University said.

“Due to the increased speed and range, limbless crawling robots with ballistic rolling capability could be deployed more generally at a disaster site such as a tsunami aftermath. The robot can wheel to a debris field and wiggle into the danger for us.”

Check out this video — it’s bleeping awesome. — Ed.