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Nanotechnology Now – Press Release: The caterpillar robot demonstrates a new approach to locomotion for soft robotics

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Researchers at North Carolina State University have demonstrated a soft, caterpillar-like robot that can move forward, backward and dive in tight spaces.  The worm-bot's movement is driven by a new pattern of silver nanowires that use heat to control the way the robot bends, allowing the user to steer the robot in either direction.  CREDITS Shuang Wu State University, NC
Researchers at North Carolina State University have demonstrated a soft, caterpillar-like robot that can move forward, backward and dive in tight spaces. The worm-bot’s movement is driven by a new pattern of silver nanowires that use heat to control the way the robot bends, allowing the user to steer the robot in either direction. CREDITS Shuang Wu State University, NC

Abstract:
Researchers at North Carolina State University have demonstrated a soft, caterpillar-like robot that can move forward, backward and dive in tight spaces. The worm-bot’s movement is driven by a new pattern of silver nanowires that use heat to control the way the robot bends, allowing the user to steer the robot in either direction.

The robot caterpillar demonstrates a new approach to locomotion for soft robotics

Durham, N.C. | Posted on March 24, 2023

“The caterpillar’s movements are controlled by the local curvature of its body — the curve of its body differs when pulling itself forward than when pushing itself backwards,” said Yong Zhu, corresponding author of the paper on the work and Andrew A. Adams Distinguished Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at NC State . “We’ve drawn inspiration from caterpillar biomechanics to mimic that localized curvature, and used nanowire heating to control similar curvature and movement in the caterpillar’s bot.

“Engineering a soft robot that can move in two different directions is a significant challenge in soft robotics,” said Zhu. “The embedded nanowire heater allows us to control the robot’s movement in two ways. We can control which part of the robot bends by controlling the heating pattern on the soft robot. And we can control the degree to which the part bends by controlling the amount of heat applied.”

The caterpillar boot is made up of two polymer layers, which respond differently when exposed to heat. The undercoat shrinks, or contracts, when exposed to heat. The top layer expands when exposed to heat. The silver nanowire pattern is embedded in the polymer layer which expands. The pattern includes several starting points where researchers can apply electric currents. Researchers can control which part of the nanowire pattern heats up by applying an electric current to different points of the lead, and can control the amount of heat by applying more or less current.

“We showed that the caterpillar bot is able to pull itself forward and push itself backwards,” said Shuang Wu, first author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at NC State. “In general, the more current we apply, the faster it moves in both directions. However, we found that there is an optimal cycle, which gives the polymer time to cool – effectively allowing the ‘muscle’ to relax before contracting again. If we try to cycle the caterpillar bot too quickly, the body doesn’t have time to ‘relax’ before it contracts again, which impairs its movement.

The researchers also demonstrated that the caterpillar bot’s movement can be controlled to the point where the user can direct it under a very low opening – similar to guiding the robot to sneak under a door. In essence, the researchers can control the forward and backward motions and how high the robot bends upwards at any point in the process.

“This approach to driving movement in soft robots is very energy efficient, and we are interested in exploring ways to make this process even more efficient,” said Zhu. “Next additional steps include integrating this approach to propulsion of soft robots with sensors or other technologies for use in a variety of applications – such as search and rescue devices.”

The paper, “Caterpillar-Inspired Soft Crawling Robot with Programmable Distributed Thermal Actuation,” will be published March 22 in the journal Science Advances. The paper was co-authored by Jie Yin, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State; Yaoye Hong, Ph.D. students at NC State; and by Yao Zhao, a postdoctoral researcher at NC State.

Work was carried out with support from the National Science Foundation, under grants 2122841, 2005374 and 2126072; and from the National Institutes of Health, with grant number 1R01HD108473.

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Contact:
Media Contact

Matt Shipman
North Carolina State University

Expert Contact

Yong Zhu
NC State University

Copyright © North Carolina State University

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