Soft Robot 'Grows' Like a Vine Across Long Distances to Search & Rescue

Inspired by natural organisms that cover distance by growing - like vines, fungi, and nerve cells – mechanical engineers at Stanford University have demonstrated a soft, growing robot. The team created tube-like prototypes that can move through various challenging obstacles, travel toward a designated goal, and even grow into a free-standing structure. Their 'vinebot' could serve a wide range of purposes, particularly in the areas of search and rescue and medical devices. The robot is basically a tube of soft material folded inside itself, like an inside-out sock, that grows in one direction when the material at the front of the tube everts, as the tube becomes right-side-out. In the prototypes, the material was a thin, cheap plastic and the robot body everted when the scientists pumped pressurized air into the stationary end. In other versions, fluid could replace the pressurized air. "The body can be stuck to the environment or jammed between rocks, but that doesn't stop the robot because the tip can continue to progress as new material is added to the end," says project leader Elliot Hawkes, explaining a major design advantage.