New type of soft, growing robot created

Imagine rescuers searching for people in the rubble of a collapsed building. Instead of digging through the debris by hand or having dogs sniff for signs of life, they bring out a small, air-tight cylinder. They place the device at the entrance of the debris and flip a switch. From one end of the cylinder, a tendril extends into the mass of stones and dirt, like a fast-climbing vine. A camera at the tip of the tendril gives rescuers a view of the otherwise unreachable places beneath the rubble.

This is just one possible application of a new type of robot created by mechanical engineers at Stanford University, detailed in a June 19 Science Robotics paper. Inspired by natural organisms that cover distance by growing -- such as vines, fungi and nerve cells -- the researchers have made a proof of concept of their soft, growing robot and have run it through some challenging tests.

"Essentially, we're trying to understand the fundamentals of this new approach to getting mobility or movement out of a mechanism," explained Allison Okamura, professor of mechanical engineering and senior author of the paper. "It's very, very different from the way that animals or people get around the world."

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