Scientists working in the artificial intelligence and robotics space are coming up with one discovery after the other, and the latest one is sure to sweep you off your feet—robots that grow like plants! The discovery was made at the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering. Researchers there have created a unique, first-ever extrusion technology inspired by plants that enable the growth of synthetic materials.
The science and other stuff to know
Matthew Hausladen, one of the leading authors of the study which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said the team had been inspired by plant and fungi growth. “We took the idea that plants and fungi add material at the end of their bodies, either at their root tips or at their new shoots, and we translated that to an engineering system,” he explained in a press release.
The current soft-growing robots grow at the bottom, dragging a trail of material behind them as they move along. This limits their navigational ability. The new approach, however, reverses the process by making the material grow at the tip by relying on extrusion, a process in which a material is pushed through an opening to give it a specific shape. Scientists have called this process simultaneous self-lubricated photopolymerization and extrusion, which allows the robot to create its growth of material from liquid instead of a solid.
Just like a plant takes water and sunlight to build its roots and structures, a synthetic process called photopolymerization uses light to transform a liquid material into a solid material. This technology could allow soft robots to traverse demanding obstacles more effectively and efficiently.
The development is a major breakthrough that could be applied to various industries. For one, such soft robots have the potential to transform repair and maintenance activities in sectors that maintain underground operations. These could include electricity and internet companies that routinely encounter faults in their underground infrastructure.
Researchers further stated that because the technique just required liquid and light, industrial activities requiring heat, pressure, and heavy machinery to shape materials could be avoided entirely, saving businesses millions of dollars in investment and time.
Moreover, as designs and tech improve, soft robots could become a definitive tool for the medical and healthcare industry, to explore and cure areas within the human body.
Researchers that led the study are confident in the development’s efficacy, arguing that advancements in materials and processes could eventually make soft-growing robots helpful and indispensable in a variety of applications. “Our approach offers the possibility of a new materials-processing and growing robot platform for on-demand infrastructure, exploring, and sensing in a variety of confined, remote, or hard-to-access environments,” they wrote in the study’s conclusion.