New “Brainless” Soft Robot Navigates Complex Environments with Physical Intelligence

Introducing “Brainless” Soft Robots: Navigating Complex Environments

Researchers at North Carolina State University have made significant advancements in soft robot technology. Building upon their previous work, they have now created a “brainless” soft robot that can navigate more complex and dynamic environments without human or computer direction.

Physical Intelligence and Design

The new soft robots are designed based on the concept of physical intelligence. Unlike traditional robots, these robots rely on their structural design and the materials they are made of to govern their behavior, rather than being guided by a computer or human intervention.

Made of ribbon-like liquid crystal elastomers, the soft robots exhibit a rolling motion when placed on a surface hotter than the ambient air. The portion of the ribbon touching the surface contracts, inducing the rolling motion. The warmer the surface, the faster the robot rolls.

An Asymmetrical Design for Enhanced Agility

The previous version of the soft robot had a symmetrical design, which sometimes caused it to get stuck between parallel obstacles. The new robot, however, features an asymmetrical design with two distinct halves.

One half of the robot is shaped like a twisted ribbon that extends in a straight line, while the other half is shaped like a more tightly twisted ribbon that resembles a spiral staircase. This design results in one end of the robot exerting more force on the ground than the other end, allowing it to turn without coming into contact with an object.

Due to its asymmetrical shape, the robot moves in arcs instead of a straight line when encountering obstacles. This ability to move in arcs enables the robot to navigate through twisty mazes and wiggle its way free from entrapment between parallel objects.

Navigating Complex Environments

The researchers conducted tests to demonstrate the capabilities of the asymmetrical soft robot design. The robot successfully navigated through more complex mazes, including those with moving walls, and fit through spaces narrower than its body size. The tests were conducted on both a metal surface and in sand.

These advancements in soft robot design have significant implications for various applications. Soft robots could potentially harvest heat energy from their environment and offer innovative solutions in a wide range of fields.

The research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation.

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