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April 9, 2018

Soft "vine robots" grow into solutions


Engineers design vine-like, inflatable, plastic bots that can change shape to solve problems

Animals inspire many designs for robots, from the gecko-inspired StickyBot to RoboBees. But, mechanical engineers at Stanford University looked to the plant world for bio-inspiration.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Allison Okamura and her collaborators at Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, are building soft robots inspired by vines. Collaborators on this research include Elliot Hawkes of University of California, Santa Barbara, and Sean Follmer and Jonathan Fan of Stanford University.

The form and nature of vines are ideal for threading through narrow spaces, whether those spaces are within the human body or at a disaster site. Imagine a vine robot becoming a water hose that grows to a fire or an oxygen tube that grows to a trapped disaster victim. The team is also engineering vine robots with the ability to configure themselves into three-dimensional structures, such as manipulators and antennae for communication.

Vine robots are one type of soft robot, an emerging area of robotics engineering. Soft robots incorporate versatility, adaptability, and pliability to function more like natural organisms, and to allow humans and soft robots to work safely together.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1637446, National Robotics Initiative (NRI): Vine Robots: Achieving Locomotion and Construction by Growth.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Kate Tobin, Science Nation Producer


Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.