MIT’s tentacle robot is an expert navigator and soft as chewing gum

This soft robot is flexible, portable and em-puffable.

A squishy robot from MIT that looks, feels, and even blows up like bubble gum is an expert navigator that can snake its way through a tricky maze without human help.

It sounds silly, but the bot’s creators say this goofy design is a serious model for future robots that can work alongside people safely.

“It looks like a balloon animal,” Andrew Marchese, a graduate student at MIT’s CSAIL, who was a key designer of the robot, said.

Companies like Rethink Robotics and European competitor Universal Robots are each designing their robots to collaborate effectively, and comfortably with human co-workers. Just having a soft body will go a long way towards ensuring safety of their human co-workers, Marchese said: “We want to make something that can crash into you and not hurt. If it crashes into you, it bounces right off.”

The general goal for all helper robots, not just soft ones, is to be as independent as possible. “I don’t want to be a puppeteer,” Marchese explained. “I want my robot arm to go through a pipe without human intervention.”

But controlling soft materials is, well, hard—and the robotic tentacle is made of entirely of silicone. “When you have a soft arm made of rubber the consistency of chewing gum, the math becomes more complicated,” Marchese said.

But Marchese and the Distributed Robotics Lab at MIT, headed by roboticist Daniela Rus, have plenty of experience tackling this problem. Earlier this year, Marchese and Rus demonstrated a flexible underwater “robot fish,” with brain and brawn on board, that can autonomously find its way underwater. Stanford roboticist Robert Katzschmann is another member of the tentacle robot’s design team.

The new robot tentacle is well on the way towards that achievement. With a video camera watching overheard, and with a map of the maze programmed in, the robot can make its way from one side of a pipe maze to another without humans getting involved. Future versions of the bot could carry sensors that help it along even further.

The arm is a bit stiffer along one side, which performs like a spine. The “muscles” on either side are inflatable pockets that can puff up to bend the bot this way or that. The ability to bend around obstacles can help this robot navigate exotic plumbing, for sure. But this talent also comes in handy navigating any real world environment.

“If robots are going to enter our lives, they have to think about real problems like, hey, there’s all this stuff on his desk how do I navigate through it,” Marchese said.

It’s also portable. “You could smoosh this guy into a ball and store him in a plastic bag,” Marchese says, though he admits he hasn’t tried it yet.

Marchese’s team is presenting the robot at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Chicago this week.

Image via MIT

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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