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Soft Robots Roll, Spin and Orbit for Discovery Missions

The novel design, from researchers at the University of North Carolina, responds to temperature, making them autonomous from human or computer control

Scarlett Evans

January 24, 2024

2 Min Read
The robots are made out of liquid crystal elastomers
The robots are made out of liquid crystal elastomersUniversity of North Carolina

Researchers have developed a new kind of autonomous soft robot that can spin, roll and orbit a central point, which the team said could be used for navigating and mapping unknown environments.

The team, from the University of North Carolina, created the robots out of liquid crystal elastomers, which are ribbon-like structures twisted and joined to create a closed-loop structure. 

These structures, dubbed twisted ringbots, respond to heat, rolling when placed on temperatures at least 131 degrees Fahrenheit. The warmer the surface, the faster the robot rolls.

The robots move entirely autonomously, driven by their structural design and the way they interact with their environment rather than a human or computer operator. If they encounter a boundary, such as the wall of a box, they will travel along the line of the boundary, which the team said makes it ideal for exploration and discovery capabilities.

The robots can be adapted for different use cases and environments by changing their shape. The speed at which they move can be influenced by several factors including the width of the ribbon and the number of twists in the ribbon. 

“Regardless of where the twisted ringbot is introduced to these spaces, it is able to make its way to a boundary and follow the boundary lines to map the space’s contours – whether it’s a square, a triangle and so on,” said Fangjie Qi, first author of the paper. “It also identifies gaps or damage in the boundary.

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“In principle, no matter how complex a space is, you would be able to map it if you introduced enough of the twisted ringbots to map the whole picture, each one giving part of it. And, given that these are relatively inexpensive to produce, that’s viable.”

The study comes as part of ongoing research into soft robotics, with innovators continuing to develop novel ways of controlling these structures, used in everything from drug delivery to environmental monitoring.

“Soft robotics is still a relatively new field,” said Jie Yin, corresponding author of a paper on the work. “Finding new ways to control the movement of soft robots in a repeatable, engineered way moves the field forward. And advancing our understanding of what is possible is exciting.”

About the Author(s)

Scarlett Evans

Assistant Editor, IoT World Today

Scarlett Evans is the assistant editor for IoT World Today, with a particular focus on robotics and smart city technologies. Scarlett has previous experience in minerals and resources with Mine Australia, Mine Technology and Power Technology. She joined Informa in April 2022.

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