Engineers at North Carolina State University have developed a new soft robot capable of turning on its own, allowing it to navigate winding mazes and even overcome moving obstacles. The robot does all this using physical intelligence rather than being controlled by a computer.

“In our previous work, we showed that our soft robot was able to twist and turn through a very simple obstacle course,” the researchers noted. “The previous robot couldn’t turn unless it encountered an obstacle. In practice, this meant the robot could sometimes get stuck jumping back and forth between parallel obstacles.”

Physical intelligence refers to robots whose behavior is controlled by their design and the materials from which they are made, rather than controlled by computer or human intervention.

As with the previous version, the new soft robots are made of ribbon-like liquid crystal elastomers. When the robots are placed on a surface that is at least 55 degrees Celsius, which is hotter than the surrounding air, the part of the tape touching the surface will contract, while the part of the tape touching the air will not. This induces a rolling motion, and the warmer the surface, the faster the robot rolls.

While the previous version of the soft robot had a symmetrical design, the new robot has two different sides. One side of the robot is in the shape of a spiral tape extending out in a straight line, while the other half is in the shape of a more tightly wound tape, which also twists around itself in a spiral staircase.

This asymmetrical design means that one end of the robot exerts more force on the ground than the other end. Think of a plastic cup with a mouth wider than the bottom. When you roll it across the table, it doesn’t roll in a straight line – it makes an arc as it moves across the table. This is due to its asymmetrical shape.

“The concept of our new robot is quite simple: due to its asymmetric design, it turns without having to come into contact with an object. So, although it changes direction when it comes into contact with an object, allowing it to navigate a maze, it cannot get stuck between parallel objects. Instead, it allows to move in an arc,” noted the robot’s authors.

Source: Science Daily