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South Coast Scientists Create Vine-Like Robot That Could Be Used In Medicine And Disaster Relief

Researchers on the South Coast are developing a unique robot that can do what other robots can’t. This vine-like robot can expand and move around obstacles to navigate its environment. It could even be life-saving in medical and disaster relief situations.

The robot grows like a fast-moving vine. As the body of the robot expands, creating a long tube, it looks like a snake.

“What’s nice about this is it mimics the pattern of growth of a vine, adding new material to the tip but does so in a way that is very fast and cheap and easy to make in our lab,” says Elliot Hawkes, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara.

He came up with the idea to develop what he calls a “vine robot.”

“I had a vine in my office that was away from a window on a bookshelf. It slowly grew out this tendril around the edge of the bookshelf and got some sunlight. So, it was kind of this realization that plants can actually access new locations through this process of growth,” Hawkes says.

He and his students are collaborating with researchers at Stanford University to develop this vine robot that can do some powerful things, like squeeze into small spaces, move through tight angles and exert pressure on objects without destroying them. That’s why this robot could some day be used to assist in life-saving medical procedures and in disaster relief efforts.

Hawkes says the way it works is quite simple.

“We’ve taken this plastic tubing and we’ve stuffed it back inside itself. It was about two feet long. We’ve got it crinkled up and it’s only an inch or so long at this point. When we put some compressed air inside that tubing, it wants to expand and unfurl from the tip. As I do that, we can hear it and just like that, it has lengthened out to two feet again,” he explains.

Tiny versions of this vine robot could some day be used in medicine to help severely ill patients.

“Access in the body becomes really hard unless we either want to cut through something or go around something. A device likes this, it very easily mimics those curvatures and those paths. So, there’s the potential that we can open up an area of the body that’s previously been off-limits to technology,” says David Haggerty, a PhD student in mechanical engineering who works in this lab.

He and his colleagues are collaborating with a neurosurgeon to develop a vine robot that can grow through blood vessels in the body to remove a clot from the brain for stroke patients. They’re also designing a robot that can be used for intubation by growing from the mouth, down the throat, to the lungs to deliver oxygen to the patient.

And Hawkes says larger robots could potentially save lives in search and rescue.

“We can have a ton of them growing in parallel each with sensors on it. And if any of them came across a trapped victim, they could report back to the surface exactly where that person is. We’ve created a physical conduit from the surface to the trapped victim. And you could potentially pump water, liquid, communication, food or whatever through this tubing,” he says.

The vine robot has already been used in archaeological digs. Last year, it explored an ancient temple in Peru and discovered 3,000-year-old tunnels containing ceramics and human remains.

Hawkes and his students are working on these vine robots to make improvements so that they can be successfully used in these and many more applications.

Nicholas Naclerio, a PhD student in mechanical engineering, uses a sewing machine on fabric to make an extension that runs along the sides of the robot. He’s creating what’s called “muscles” that allow the robot to change direction.

“Now, with these muscles, we can make very quick turns for quick response to the robot. In the future, if it was automated, see some kind of target, it could quickly turn towards it, turn away, inspect its surroundings and be much more useful,” he says.

Earlier this year, Science Robotics Magazine named the vine robot one of the “ten robotics technologies of the year.”