The Meshworm. (Photo : MIT)
Researchers from Harvard University, MIT, and Seoul National University have found inspiration in the dirt. More specifically, the scientists looked at earthworms and the way they move. The result? A small, worm-like robot that is virtually indestructible and can avoid obstacles that could be used for everything from reconnaissance to medical purposes. Its development will open up new doors in the world of artifical muscle research.
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The wormbot is nicknamed "Meshworm" and moves via peristalsis. Earthworms, snails, and sea cucumbers all use peristalsis to move around, and the wormbot is meant to mimic that.
Much like the way your throat forces food down your throat, peristalsis involves expansion and contraction of muscles. The Meshworm's ability to contract and expand comes from nickel and titanium wires that make up the "artificial muscle." It was dubbed the Meshworm due to the mesh tubing that makes up its body.
Perhaps the most fascinating feature is its hardiness; the Meshworm will keep inching along at speeds of up to five millimeters per second despite being stepped on or impeded.
"You can throw it, and it won't collapse," said lead MIT researcher Sangbae Kim to MITNews. "Most mechanical parts are rigid and fragile at small scale, but the parts in Meshworms are all fibrous and flexible. The muscles are soft, and the body is soft ... we're starting to show some body-morphing capability."
The nature of the robot means that it can be used for a variety of purposes. While a worm spy is definitely possible, there is also the ability to use it in medical procedures such as endoscopes.
If the technology is well received, you might begin seeing components of the Meshworm in everyday devices.
Kellar Autumn from Lewis and Clark University says, "Even though the robot's body is much simpler than a real worm - it has only a few segments - it appears to have quite impressive performance. I predict that in the next decade we will see shape-changing artificial muscles in many products, such as mobile phones, portable computers and automobiles."