The secret to building the perfect robotic worm seems to be wholesale design theft from the lowly nematode.
Other than the cataclysmic tremors themselves, the worst part of an earthquake is the monumental destruction left behind. Buildings collapse or fall over, which is terrible news for people who enjoy living in buildings (read: all of them). This often leads to situations where rescue crews spend weeks digging through rubble to recover survivors, or more often, corpses.
Lives could be saved if only someone could create a better way to reach trapped survivors.
Enter: Jordan Boyle, researcher at the University of Leeds in the UK. Boyle is a robotics geek, and has designed a 'bot that not only conforms to the aesthetics of a worm, it actually mimics the very biological functions that give the creatures such efficient digging capabilities.
New Scientist reports:
The nematode can vary its wiggling frequency fourfold, giving it a wide range of speeds and undulating motions - and yet it has almost no easily detectable neural centre controlling this motion, Boyle says.
"It has an unusually small nervous system, comprising just over 300 neurons. Rather than using a central neural subcircuit as a pattern generator, it seems to generate its undulatory motion using around 100 neurons in a way largely driven by feedback from stretch sensors along its body," he says.
So he has created a 2-metre-long, 16-centimetre-wide robot that moves similarly - thanks to sensors that control motion in the same way as the worm's. The robot has 12 articulated segments, each of which can swing from side to side using a geared motor in its centre.
Additionally, Boyle's robot is made of a "tough nylon-based plastic" instead of aluminum, allowing prospective owners to print the worm on 3D printers at will, and cutting assembly costs by more than 50 percent.
New Scientist has a clip of the 'bot navigating a series of pegs on a table, and yeah, in my entirely non-professional opinion, that thing moves like a giant worm made of space age plastics.
Once complete, the idea is that this worm could crawl through rubble, locate survivors and, alongside reporting their position to rescuers, pump in air and water to the trapped individuals.
Boyle's design is still a ways from actually assisting people, but his clever idea should prove an inspiration to future scientists and engineers. Remember boys and girls, Mother Nature has some awesome design chops.
Source: New Scientist